Erin Allison has been executive director of the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center Inc. since June 2023. Though just 26 years old, she’s a dedicated Keys nonprofit leader who’s big on achievable goals.

Florida Keys woman

Erin’s goals for the center include broadening local outreach and expanding educational programs.

The Key Largo resident is building public awareness of the center’s donation-based Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary in Tavernier. At the separate stand-alone Mission Wild Bird Hospital, she hopes to offer exclusive private guided tours.

Among Erin’s goals are broadening the organization’s local outreach, for example by holding public releases of rehabilitated wild birds, and through local education — expanding programs for school children to see firsthand the center’s on-site work.

Wild birds such as pelicans are often brought to the center with injuries from fishhooks, as are baby birds, hawks, owls, songbirds, raptors, vultures and seabirds — all common patients.

As an Upper Keys high school student, Erin received an Upper Keys Rotary Club scholarship to attend Miami’s Florida International University. There she earned a degree in interdisciplinary studies with concentrations in education, team management and biodiversity conservation.

She interned as a seasonal naturalist at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources but was urged by Keys Rotarian Frank Derfler, who served on the bird center’s board, to work at the center when returning to the Keys.

Erin was hired to be the center’s outreach coordinator and later spread her own wings at West Virginia’s West Liberty University, earning a Master of Science degree in biology. She also volunteered at a conservation center on Costa Rica’s remote Osa Peninsula for several months.

Florida Keys Wild Bird Center

A white heron preens at the center. A self-guided tour along the boardwalks and nature trails allows a close look at resident hawks, ospreys, spoonbills, egrets and more. (Photo by Julie Botteri, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Now, however, like many of the birds she helps to rehabilitate, Erin has flown back home.

Keys Voices: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?

Erin Allison: I grew up visiting my father, who lived in the Keys, on the weekends. At 15 I moved in full-time with my dad so I could attend Coral Shores High School, which was a blast.

KV: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?

EA: That’s easy! The nature around us and our community. Everybody recognizes the Keys for its beauty, but we also have an incredibly close-knit community. It’s a “we’re all in this together” vibe.

KV: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?

EA: My desire is to protect it at all costs. I’ve seen the Keys change and can only imagine what it must have looked like before all the development and people. Can you visualize how pristine it must have been? Sprawling hardwood hammocks, pine rocklands and mangrove forests, with flourishing seagrass beds and thriving coral reefs. We need to hold on to what we have.

KV: How does that passion influence your work or profession?

Florida Keys woman watching sunset

Erin’s favorite activities include being still while watching a Keys sunset over the water.

EA: It all began with our founder, Laura Quinn, who was living on a sailboat, watching wild birds and carving wood sculptures of them back in the ’80s. She became one of the first wildlife rehabilitators in the Florida Keys. Her stewardship and passion are alive through what we do every day. Passion is everything for me and my team.

KV: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with and/or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?

EA: Education and outreach are my bread and butter. When I visit a new place, I like to learn all I can about its natural environment. So I love sharing this type of information with travelers to cultivate appreciation and respect for our sensitive ecosystem.

KV: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?

EA: I’m a new director with a fresh perspective, but I’m not new to the organization. Today the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center has so much potential for growth. It’s very motivating and exciting. We need support from the community so we can ensure the bird center is around for decades to come.

Florida Keys Wild Bird Center

The Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center is a haven for avian life — and a must-visit spot for travelers to the Keys.

KV: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish? 

EA: That those who live in and visit the Keys will become inspired to preserve our unique natural environment and cherish our wildlife — especially the birds!

KV: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?

EA: The Florida Keys is truly one of a kind. There is nowhere else in the United States like it. It’s a beautiful national treasure and we should be faithful to its environment and wildlife.

KV: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?

EA: To sit on the end of a dock at sunset, be still, and take in the wild world. The best sunsets often occur after the sun has already set, which I like to think of as the “encore.”