Skip to main content

Cape Coral Living Magazine

Champions of Nature: Defending Southwest Florida’s land, water, wildlife and future

Nov 23, 2020 05:00PM ● By KATIE FERRON
Champions of Nature: Defending Southwest Florida’s land, water, wildlife and future [11 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

Joanna Fitzgerald and Kathy Worley have a couple things in common. They are both passionate advocates for preserving Southwest Florida’s environment. And they have each been doing it for 25 years at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Fitzgerald is director of the conservancy’s von Arx Wildlife Hospital, where she oversees the rehabilitation and treatment of more than 4,000 injured, orphaned and sick native wildlife every year.

Worley is the conservancy’s director of environmental science, responsible for directing and managing organizational science research, programs and staff.

But being a director doesn’t mean a desk job for either of these two defenders of nature.

Fitzgerald is hands on at the von Arx Wildlife Hospital, working extra hours with reduced staff and half the available volunteers during the pandemic. With a degree in zoology from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, she interned at zoos in Wisconsin and Illinois, volunteered at the International Crane Foundation and conducted field research on wood thrush nesting success for the National Park Service in the Great Smoky Mountains. She started as an intern at the conservancy in 1994 and was named director of the wildlife hospital in 1999.

Believing in the need for environmental education, she has been writing a weekly article since 2009 highlighting patient admissions at the hospital, causes of injuries and ways people can change their actions to prevent injuries to wildlife.

“It is absolutely encouraging to have such tremendous community support,” Fitzgerald says. “I am so grateful that we live in a place where people are so incredibly passionate about our wildlife.”

Worley’s passion for preserving mangroves, water quality and sea turtles often has her working outside. She has led water quality research, incorporating both laboratory and field data analysis. In addition, she manages mangrove research projects, evaluating the causes of die-offs adjacent to development and assessing mangrove restoration projects for long-term success, and she has evaluated the effect of hurricanes on mangrove systems and their long-term recovery.

After earning an undergraduate degree in biology at Colorado State University, Worley pursued a master’s degree at Florida International University, writing her thesis on the causes of mangrove die-offs adjacent to urban areas. She was hired as an environmental specialist at the conservancy in 1995. 

Worley has co-written various papers and technical reports on mangrove ecology, sea turtles and water quality, as well as eco-toxicological reports evaluating hazards to wildlife. She also supports the Sea Turtle Monitoring and Protection Project at the conservancy and was instrumental in the creation of the Shotwell Wavering Family Filter Marsh, completed in 2011.

“We have made contributions in the field of environmental science, which hopefully will help preserve our environment for future generations, but our work is nowhere near over,” Worley says. “Long-term studies and continued field and laboratory work, along with education and advocacy, are critical in being good stewards of our environment, and I’m honored to be able to do my part.”

For information about the conservancy’s mission to protect water, land, wildlife and the future, call 239-262-2273 or visit