Southwest Florida wildlife hospitals see surge in admissions
Wildlife hospitals in Southwest Florida are seeing a surge in admissions, and the novel coronavirus may be playing a big part.
It's not that the virus is making animals sick, but that more people are working from home and getting outdoors during the pandemic, so they are seeing more of Florida's wild side.
Sometimes the animals they call about or bring in are really in need; other times the animals might be better off being left alone.
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Call it another symptom of COVID-19: Between remote work and devastating unemployment rates, people’s schedules and habits have shifted, and that change is driving the surge in admissions.
On Sanibel, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife is seeing growing numbers and is likely to have a record year.
In Naples, tucked behind the city’s zoo, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s von Arx Wildlife Hospital has already broken its record.
“We’re over 4,000 admissions now,” Joanna Fitzgerald, von Arx’s director said. “At this time last year, we were only at 3,500, so it’s a big increase.”
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CROW, with larger metro areas nearby, has had about 5,200 patients, just shy of last year’s 5,300.
“We’re definitely on track to have another record year this year,” said Shelli Albright, office and admissions manager at CROW.
Albright and Fitzgerald both hypothesized that COVID has something to do with all the admissions.
“Because of COVID, so many more people are home and so many more people are trying to be outdoors because that’s the only thing you can do right now,” Fitzgerald said. “There are more interactions because people are out in the wild where animals are doing their thing.”
At CROW, when self-isolating and work from home began in the spring, a lot of phone calls were coming in from people noticing young animals in their yards, Albright said. This happened to coincide with baby season, she said, so everyone was calling about fledglings.
A challenge arises, however, because it’s normal for baby birds to be out of the nest and away from adults as they learn to fly. Both CROW and von Arx work to educate callers that not every fledgling needs professional help.
Whether someone is planning to take wildlife to either CROW or von Arx, it’s best to call ahead to make sure the animal truly needs help.
“Everybody is always concerned, and we appreciate that,” Fitzgerald said,” but call first before taking action or text us a photo. It takes about 10 minutes for us to look at a young animal to tell if it’s alert and responsive.”
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Albright advises the same for people considering admitting wildlife to CROW.
“I love it when people find a baby and call us first,” she said. “Most of the time I can ask some questions and if it’s determined to be healthy tell them to put it in a safe place and monitor it and most of the time the adult will come care for the baby.”
It’s possible to re-nest fledglings or build a new nest so the bird is safe until the adult comes back, she said.
The increasing numbers of admissions make more work for both rehabbers, and in the COVID economy where neither workplace is growing, it can get tough.
“It’s been actually difficult because of COVID with budget cuts across the board at the Conservancy,” Fitzgerald said. “We lost a staff member and a couple intern positions.”
Even with some short staffing, Fitzgerald is upbeat and positive. “I don’t think our team has ever worked so well together,” she said.
CROW’s staff hasn’t grown this year, but the same staff is handling a lot more patients, Albright said. Students and volunteers help out, but that number has dwindled because of COVID.
The interns at von Arx are working diligently, too, and without the typical trips up to the Orlando theme parks.
“Even the interns are making the extra commitment to make sure they are healthy for the benefit of the animals,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s definitely a lot and I’m not going to say we aren’t tired. We aren’t taking vacations partly because of COVID because we can’t risk getting sick.”
If someone suspects an animal is injured or needs professional help, call ahead just to make certain. CROW can be reached at 239-472-3644 and von Arx at 239-262-2273.
“Remember: these animals are living, they feel pain and suffer and the sooner they can get professional help the better,” Fitzgerald said.
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Send tips and comments to email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk