Caring for Creatures
Maybe they’re not warm and fuzzy, but who doesn’t love a turtle?
by Don Vaughan
Photos courtesy of N.C. State Veterinary Medicine
Every year in North Carolina, thousands of turtles are injured as a result of encounters with automobiles, dogs, and other predators. The lucky ones are found by good Samaritans and brought to the Turtle Rescue Team Program at N.C. State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where they are treated and, if possible, returned to the wild.
One such patient is Honey Badger, a 17-pound snapping turtle that was struck by a car, resulting in a cracked shell and extrusion of part of his large intestine and liver. “We took Honey Badger to surgery, and I was able to treat him with the help of Dr. Jeffrey Applegate, a doctor in the exotic animal medicine service,” reports Mandy Womble, PhD, a third-year veterinary student and co-president, along with Chris Masterson, of the Turtle Rescue Team. “We repaired a little tear in his intestine and forced open the shell so we could put the intestine back in. His lungs had also collapsed, so we inserted a tube to pull out the air pressing on his lungs. He’s doing well, and we hope to release him back into the wild very soon.”
Honey Badger is one of 475 injured turtles brought to the program so far this year, reports Dr. Greg Lewbart, an exotics specialist who started the Turtle Rescue Team program in 1996. “The first ten years, we were seeing between 150 and 250 turtles annually,” he says. “Our average now is around 500.” The program also treats injured amphibians, lizards, and nonvenomous snakes, which account for approximately 5 percent of the program’s annual patient load.
The majority of cases are vehicle- or predator-related injuries, but there have been some atypical cases as well. They include a snake that swallowed a mousetrap with the mouse still in it (the patient survived), a snake that swallowed a golf ball (perhaps thinking it was an egg; yet another success story), and a turtle that ingested ethylene glycol and had to be treated with tiny shots of vodka. The treatment worked, but the patient died from unrelated causes.
Holding the record for the most time at the clinic is a box turtle named Oliver Twist that contracted a resistant form of E. coli. The team spent more than a year treating the infection, which finally responded to an older antibiotic known as meropenem. Oliver was released near Harris Lake and followed for a year via a radio transmitter attached to his shell.
Treating injured turtles can be challenging, and occasionally requires innovation. Until around 2010, surgical screws were drilled into the shell and surgical wire was used to hold the shell together as it healed. It was an invasive procedure and uncomfortable for the patients, so the students perfected a safer alternative: tiny clothing hooks attached to the shell with epoxy. Also useful is a type of surgical mesh that becomes malleable when heated with a hair dryer. When wrapped tightly around a damaged shell, it creates a healing “turtle girdle,” Dr. Lewbart says.
Approximately 50 veterinary students participate in the Turtle Rescue Team program, which has an annual budget of around $10,000—all of which comes from private donations and student fundraisers. The program also works with local wildlife rehabilitators, who care for the patients as they mend.
The value of the Turtle Rescue Team to its patients is obvious. But the students who participate also benefit greatly. “The Turtle Rescue Team is one of the best ways for veterinary students to get clinical experience while they are in veterinary school,” explains third-year student Chris Masterson, whose focus is zoological medicine. “We oversee patient intake, create treatment plans, treat the patients, and get them out to rehab so they can finish the healing process.”
Participating students also get to perform surgery, something those not in the program don’t have an opportunity to do until much later. Womble, for example, has performed around 15 leg amputations on injured box turtles. Luckily, she says, box turtles usually do well in the wild with only three legs.
Occasionally, other veterinary specialists will lend their expertise to a difficult case. Lewbart recalls a box turtle that had already lost one back leg and was in jeopardy of losing another, which meant it could never be returned to the wild. Veterinary orthopedic surgeon Dr. Simon Roe managed to save the leg by placing two intramedullary pins in the femur. The patient recovered and was successfully released.
If you find an injured reptile or amphibian, call the Turtle Rescue Team hotline at 919.397.9675; priorities are manned daily from 8am to 8pm. The medical service is free, but donations are appreciated.