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Oh, Deer

Amputation of a leg means one thing for an injured deer: It can never be returned to the wild. Yet this was the fate that loomed for the little white-tailed deer fawn in Joanna Fitzgerald’s care as manager of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Wildlife Clinic.

The clinic was rehabilitating two fawns in a large outdoor recovery enclosure. After a night of terrible thunderstorms, the staff arrived early to feed the fawns. One, spooked by the thunder, apparently tried to bolt and fractured its leg. 

Fitzgerald consulted a veterinarian, and then got a second opinion. Both vets were hesitant to attempt surgery to stabilize the leg. Both felt that the fawn would be too active for the leg to heal properly. They recommended amputation.Fitzgerald felt strongly that this was not an option. “Release is the goal for all our patients,” she says. “Amputation would end any hope of releasing this fawn.” 

She couldn’t give up. She understood that a completely wild fawn would not have tolerated such a procedure. But, she told the vets, this youngster had already been in rehab for several weeks and was accustomed to being in an enclosure.

“Thankfully,” Fitzgerald says, “we have amazing vets who are willing to take our information and thoughts into account and work together in the best interest of each animal. They agreed to do the surgery, and, as we hoped, it stayed quiet for several weeks while its leg healed. This was one of the first cases I handled on my own as the manager of the clinic, so it caused me a tremendous amount of pressure and worry. It was a joyful day for me when our little fawn was finally released.”


Fitzgerald shares this poignant story as we start my whirlwind tour in the tiny kitchen of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic. Volunteer Bob Schultheis looks up with a smile, but he has no time to chat. It’s lunchtime for the patients, and Schultheis, along with intern Lydia Leone and wildlife rehabilitation specialist Ana Sosa, are the chefs of the hour. Their artistic platters look like gourmet antipastos worthy of fancy restaurants, except for the writhing of golden waxworms among the fresh greens. There’s also —among other things—“carpaccio of mouse,” “croutons” of dog kibble, and “ceviche” of various fish parts and assorted tropical fruits. 

Yummy. At least for the birds, reptiles and mammals, that is. They need this nutritious diet in order to survive. Every creature gets a different diet. “Each one,” Fitzgerald explains, “is prescribed by our veterinarians and formulated based on the animal’s age, the nature of its illness or injury, and its ability to feed itself. The youngest ones must be fed every half-hour from dawn to dusk.”

I’m getting this very rare tour of the clinic because it is soon to be replaced by the new, 4,500-square-foot, state-of-the-art von Arx Wildlife Clinic. From the kitchen in this rickety old wooden building, which feels more like a rustic camp bunkhouse than a hospital, I see the examining room. There’s barely space to move around the table. On a narrow counter are medical charts, and on the wall is a dry-marker board listing all patients, with detailed medication, care and feeding schedules. The room is so cramped that X-rays are done in the education building. “Babies” are fed in Fitzgerald’s office, which also often serves as a temporary nursery. Space is so tight that ducks and other small water birds get their “water therapy” treatments in the bathtub. 

There’s no place for an operating table. “For surgeries,” says Barbara Wilson, the Conservancy’s marketing and communications director, “we rely on generous donations of time and facilities from vets at St. Francis Animal Clinic and Sabal Palm Animal Hospital.” 

But there’s excitement afoot. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida was established in the mid-’60s with a grassroots effort to stop a road through Rookery Bay. On Sanibel Island, CROW (Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife) also was established in the mid-’60s. It started with the rescue of a single royal tern. CROW opened its new, 4,800-square-foot, state-of-the-art veterinary hospital and education center in 2009. The Conservancy’s new clinic is slated to open by the end of this year and become fully operational in 2012. 

Besides a spacious new examining room, records room and intensive care unit, the von Arx Wildlife Clinic will have a real operating room, separate recovery rooms for mammals and reptiles, a pelican pool and a flight recovery aviary. There will also be a wildlife drop-off lobby, classrooms and public viewing areas.

No Health Insurance

Try to imagine nearly 7,000 patients a year showing up at a hospital with critical injuries and not a nickel’s worth of health insurance. That’s exactly what’s happening here in Southwest Florida. More than 2,400 patients were admitted to the Conservancy’s clinic last year. Almost twice that many—4,100 representing 200 species—were brought to CROW. Combined, they may have rescued, rehabilitated and returned to nature as many as 100,000 creatures of land, air and sea. 

Who are they? A great blue heron hit by a golf ball. A raccoon killed by a car, carrying full-term, healthy babies that needed to be born. A pelican with a fishhook stuck in its throat. A baby fawn singed in a fire. A cardinal attacked by a cat. A barn owl that fell out of its nest. Panthers, loggerhead turtles and gopher tortoises, ospreys, bald eagles, fox squirrels, river otters, roseate spoonbills … and the list goes on.


So, back to my tour of the soon-to-be-retired Conservancy clinic. After the kitchen and exam area, Fitzgerald and I pass briefly through the makeshift hospital ward to the intensive care unit, a room smaller than many Naples walk-in closets. Here, aging cages and incubators hold the youngest, sickest and most critical patients. Today in the ICU are two baby fawns, a bald eagle and two osprey, three gopher tortoises and a Florida softshell turtle, and several baby birds and mammals. Intern Kelly Hideriotis is treating something very tiny and furry in the palm of her hand. Beside her is a basket barely larger than a coffee mug. I peer in. Three miniature opossum faces peer back. Orphans. 

Each cage is draped with a cloth to keep the animals calm. Fitzgerald and I speak in quiet tones as befits an intensive care unit.

“We handle them as little as possible,” she says, “not just to reduce stress, but also because our objective is to return them to the wild. Their chances of survival depend on as little human imprint as possible. Also, an ‘imprinted’ animal can be a danger to humans.

“After all this time, I have learned not to get attached to the animals we serve. But I still get goose bumps when we release a creature that we weren’t sure was going to make it. And I feel so sad (and yes, angry) when an animal doesn’t survive due to human carelessness.”

Opportunity to Protect

Many local businesses and individuals stepped up to the plate decades ago when Southwest Florida’s rehabilitation centers were young. Naples Community Hospital donated the ICU incubators for the Conservancy Wildlife Clinic, Fitzgerald says. They were designed for human babies, but they were far better than a box warmed with lamps. The new clinic will have incubators designed specifically for animals.

Three years ago, when the Conservancy announced its Saving Southwest Florida campaign, it was no coincidence that Naples humanitarians Sharon and Dolph von Arx, patrons of NCH Healthcare System, came forth with the initial leadership gift. 

A continued trend in charitable giving is the “naming opportunity.” The Conservancy’s Campaign Countdown to raise $33 million presents several naming opportunities specifically for the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic. 

“It’s a wonderful way to be a part of helping us save the lives of our injured and often endangered wildlife,” says Conservancy President and CEO Andrew McElwaine, “and show your devotion to the future of our treasured wildlife.” 

As for me, I’m still thinking about those yummy-looking “antipastos” that volunteers Schultheis, Leone and Sosa were whipping up in the clinic kitchen, so I’m partial to the idea of the Karen T. Bartlett Food Prep Kitchen. I can lock it up for $25,000. Other opportunities include The [Your Name Here] Outdoor Wildlife Viewing Area ($500,000), Mammal Recovery Wing ($150,000), Surgery Room ($75,000), or your choice of Reptile Recovery, Wildlife Drop-off Lobby or Pelican Pool ($75,000 each). 

Volunteers Desperately Needed

Financial support is only one of the clinic’s needs.

“We’re blessed with volunteers who have all kinds of skills to donate,” Fitzgerald says. “We have a dedicated carpenter, people who are willing to transport injured animals, and others who do everything from pick up supplies to assist with patient records and help keep the habitats clean. 
“When our seasonal volunteers leave, we’re especially short-handed. We have a need for everything, whatever time people can give, even if it’s just an hour or two a month.”

As the CROW Flies …

CROW’s 12.5-acre campus encompasses a state-of-the-art hospital with a full-time veterinary staff, a wildlife hotline and an exciting interpretive education center. 

Its medical facilities have the latest digital radiography (X-ray) equipment, incubators, anesthesia machines, a pediatric ward with viewing window, and an ICU/surgery suite. Besides the indoor multifunctional cages and rabbit hutches, there’s a temperature/humidity-controlled reptile room and three sea turtle pools. Just as the Conservancy of Southwest Florida does, CROW has an active outreach program, which educates through local schools, service organizations and other venues, and active intern/extern programs.

Live-feed Patient Cams

As with humans, veterinary patients are protected by federal privacy rules, which stipulate that patients may not be put on display. Also as with humans, recuperating wildlife with the most stress-free, private environments have the greatest chances of successful recovery. 

While visitors can’t go into the hospital, CROW has provided for a rich experience via live-feed patient cams at its Healing Winds Visitor Education Center. There, visitors also can read patients’ admission charts and watch their progress. Interactive exhibits allow participants to diagnose and assess injuries and illnesses. Other exhibits showcase many of the reptiles, mammals and birds that CROW has treated.

Funny and Caring

“I know more about pelican poop than anybody,” says Denny Toll.

Actually, this CROW volunteer knows a lot more than that, as anyone who attends one of Toll’s free lectures will find out. Toll likes to say he’s just an ordinary volunteer, bragging that his first assignment 11 years ago was to clean out the pelican cages. 

As we sit on the edge of our seats, we feel alternately like laughing out loud (which we do), holding our breath and holding back tears, as he literally bounds from one end of the room to the other, sharing his personal experiences of rescues and close-encounters.

He’s funny, keeping even small children engaged, but he’s serious when he describes the preventable injuries that cause so much suffering and even death. 

Toll shares ways to safely rescue a turtle crossing the road: 

“Never grasp it on the left and right—it has a very long neck that can swing around and bite. Rather, slide something under it and drag it to the side it was headed for. Want more practical advice? “Sprinkle some ammonia in your garbage can. The raccoons won’t come anywhere near it. Guaranteed.” 

Toll’s passion and compassion are inextricably linked. He tells how the people of Southwest Florida have rallied to the needs of injured animals. 

“Once,” he says, “we admitted a huge loggerhead turtle whose skull had been split by a boat propeller. Those guys eat a lot of food. We put out the word, and overnight people from all over Lee and Charlotte counties were bringing in fresh fish.” 

But he gets mad, too. “When I’m out riding bikes with my wife and we see some irresponsible human behavior—like feeding a pelican or an alligator—my wife has to remind me to ‘be nice, now.’ And mostly I am. Because sometimes people just don’t realize that what they think is a good thing in the moment can cause harm to both the animal and a human later. One of my recent ‘mad’ moments was when a pelican was admitted with its esophagus blocked by a pig’s foot. Please, fishermen, don’t give pelicans your leftover bait of any kind, and crabbers, please properly dispose of pig’s feet after using them for bait!”

Toll is one of many lecturers who present programs in the Healing Winds Visitor Center. After his talk today, guests can’t wait to view the patient cams and explore the interactive exhibits. I’m charmed by the orphaned baby river otter cavorting in his recovery area. CROW is recognized as one of Florida’s top otter clinics. 
It’s a fact of 21st century life here in Paradise: Sea creatures get injured by boats, birds get entangled in fishing lines, and land creatures get hit by cars. Nobody causes these things on purpose, and it breaks our hearts when they happen. Which means we care. Our responsibility is not to stop driving, fishing or boating, but to know how to mitigate damages as we coexist with wildlife. Thanks to CROW, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the generosity of many, the tools for deeper human understanding and help for our fellow creatures are now
a reality.


The groundskeepers at a fort myers golf course rescued a severely injured great blue heron near the driving range. Struck by a golf ball in flight, it had dive-bombed to the ground, imbedding its bill in the dirt. The traumatized bird was struggling futilely to free itself. 

“He was very dull when he arrived in the ICU, with a huge amount of trauma in his cheek,” says CROW Clinic Director Dr. Amber McNamara. “There was dried blood in his mouth and laxity in his jaw.” When he tried to stand, fresh blood dripped from his mouth.

“We tried to keep him as comfortable as possible with pain medication,” McNamara says, “but I assessed the prognosis for this patient as ‘extremely guarded.’”

Miraculously, the heron survived the first 48 hours. As expected, X-rays showed two fractures in the lower jaw. 

“This bird would certainly not be able to feed itself, and trying to pry open its beak to feed him by hand would cause more damage,” McNamara says. “So I collaborated with staff veterinarian Dr. Stephanie French to insert a feeding tube with a procedure used on dogs and cats. I had never performed it on a bird. We threaded a tube through the heron’s mouth to its stomach. We needed two tubes to run the length of its neck. We then made an incision in the neck, pulled the end of the tube out, and sutured it to the top of the neck, with a plug to remove at feeding time. 

“He tolerated the tube well for three weeks. When we removed the tube and offered him a finger mullet, everyone at CROW was as delighted as the bird. We’re all thrilled that this spectacular great blue heron is now back in the air with a second chance at life.”

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