Gopher tortoise hatchling kept in a home

April 24, 2023

A gopher tortoise hatchling and an opossum were among the eighty-eight animals admitted to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida this past week. Other admissions include two Florida box turtles, a red-bellied woodpecker, three blue jays, an anhinga, a little blue heron, and four marsh rabbits.

Gopher Tortoise Hatchling

A woman called the von Arx Wildlife Hospital seeking assistance regarding a gopher tortoise hatchling she found the previous day. There was concern because it was possibly injured by a lawn mower. After describing the situation, hospital staff determined the tortoise needed to come to the wildlife hospital since it had already gone over twenty-four hours without care. The woman stated she would bring the tortoise to the hospital that afternoon. The day came and went and no tortoise was brought to us. Hospital staff called the woman the next morning to check on the tortoise and offer assistance in case she was having trouble with transport. The woman did not answer any of the several calls placed by hospital staff.

Knowing the laws protecting gopher tortoises and concerned this one may have been injured by a lawn mower, hospital staff called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) for assistance. Initially FWC was unwilling to respond, but after staff clarified the circumstances of the situation FWC decided to intervene. 

It took several calls before FWC reached the woman at which point she again stated she would bring the tortoise to our facility. Since the woman had said that in the past without following through, FWC went to her home to retrieve the tortoise hatchling and brought it to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital for professional care. 

A physical exam showed the hatchling was alert, active and using all four limbs appropriately. The tortoise was underweight and its shell was squishy, an indication of possible nutritional deficiencies.

Two hatchling gopher tortoises are offered a diet while recovering at the von Arx Wildlife Hospital. The tortoise on the right was admitted after an incident with a lawn mower. The tortoise on the left was found lethargic on a pathway at a local conservation area.

A radiograph showed no significant abnormalities. Staff settled the tortoise in a recovery enclosure in the reptile room. Currently, the tortoise hatchling is receiving supportive care including appropriate husbandry and nutrition. The tortoise is active when taken outside for supervised grazing, but spends extended time under a heat lamp and in its shallow water soak. Reptiles are often misdiagnosed and frequently it is assumed they are healthy or uninjured when they truly are unwell which is why receiving care from professionals with experience in reptile medicine is so important. 

Please, do not delay seeking professional help if you encounter an injured, sick or orphaned animal. Immediate medical attention allows trained professionals to evaluate and address an animal’s needs and provide necessary treatment. Inappropriate care offered by a layperson can prolong recovery time or have disastrous outcomes. There is a point at which the body can’t recover from inappropriate nutritional support and husbandry.

Opossum Found in Garbage Can

Workers at Gators’ Crossroads were taking out the trash and found an adult opossum in a garbage can. They tipped the trashcan on its side, but the opossum was still inside when they checked back a while later. At that point, they called the wildlife hospital for assistance.        

Volunteer Critter Courier, Sharon Epple, responded to the request for transport assistance. Sharon arrived on scene with a transport box and was able to gently tip the garbage can to transfer the opossum from the can into the box.

Staff at Gator’ Crossroads sought help for an opossum found in a garbage can. Even after the can was tipped on its side and given time to flee, the opossum didn’t move on. Photo Credit: Janice Clay

Upon arrival, staff performed a cursory exam. The opossum was alert and active. He was underweight, had a scrap on his nose and his ears and whiskers were twitching which can be a sign of over stimulation or toxicosis. Staff sedated the opossum in order to perform a complete physical.

While under sedation the opossum received a bath since he was quite sticky from being in the garbage can. Pain medication and an antibiotic were administered and staff provided a diet as well. The opossum was settled in a recovery enclosure to rest. Several checks on the opossum throughout the afternoon and evening revealed he was resting comfortably. 

The following morning staff noted the opossum had eaten his diet and was still resting. When roused to administer his morning medication, the opossum exhibited normal defensive behavior and no whisker or ear twitching was noted. The opossum continues to recover in the hospital. Once the course of antibiotics is complete, he will move to an outside recovery enclosure for further recovery and conditioning.

We are grateful to the staff at Gator’ Crossroads for seeking assistance for the opossum. Opossums tend to be misunderstood and maligned yet, as a species, they serve an important role in a healthy ecosystem. Opossums are opportunistic omnivores; they eat a variety of items such as insects, rodents and carrion. Opossum tend to be non-aggressive. They will open their mouth in a defensive behavior to show their teeth to scare a potential predator away. Another defense mechanism is “playing dead.” When playing dead, no amount of annoyance will get the opossum to move. If you find an opossum that appears to be playing dead, give the opossum time to move on and check back later. If it hasn’t moved on, call the hospital for guidance. 

Opossums, as well as many other wild animals, are attracted by the smell of food and will take advantage of an easy food source. Avoid attracting wildlife to your yard by keeping garbage cans securely locked and never feed pets outdoors.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Recent Releases

A red-bellied woodpecker, two chuck-will’s-widows, five eastern cottontails, two anhingas, a northern mockingbird, a sanderling, two Florida red-bellied turtles, three mourning doves, a bald eagle and two gopher tortoises were released last week.

Opportunities to Help

The von Arx Wildlife Hospital is very understaffed while seeing a large influx of animals each week due to breeding season. Please know we are doing our best with every phone call we receive. We appreciate your understanding and patience when seeking assistance.

There are many ways to get involved and support the Conservancy. Become a member, volunteer, donate and visit our website at Learn about the Conservancy’s work to protect Southwest Florida’s water, land, wildlife and future.

Joanna Fitzgerald is the Director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, 1495 Smith Preserve Way, Naples, Florida 34102. Call 239-262-2273 or see