Summertime is turtle time at the Wildlife Medical Clinic. All kinds of turtles are out and about when the weather gets nice—looking for food, mates, and nesting sites. Along the way, these animals often have dangerous encounters with everything from cars to dogs to lawnmowers. Luckily, turtles are pretty hardy animals, and they can withstand remarkable levels of trauma and still survive. At the WMC, we see turtles come in with horrific injuries, but with supportive care, a little TLC, and some fancy carpentry (we can use drills, screws, dremmels, wire, and epoxy to fix these guys!), we can usually fix them up and get them back out into the wild.
Our most recent turtle patient was a snapping turtle. This young turtle had a large tear in the skin between her neck and carapace (upper shell) as well as a fracture of the carapace itself and a mandibular (jaw) fracture. To fix this animal, we first drilled holes in the nuchal and marginal scutes just above the skin tear. Scutes are the individual plates on a turtle’s shell, and they are named based on their locations. We were able to suture the skin back into place using the drilled holes as anchors. For the shell fracture, we cleaned the wound to remove debris and dead tissue and then put screws on either side of the broken shell. We then wrapped wires around the screws and tightened them to bring the broken edges close together, similar to braces. Once the fragments were in good position, we covered the defect in calcium hydroxide paste to protect the bone (dentists use this for tooth fractures and root canals) and then covered the entire area with quick-drying epoxy. We used this same screw and wire technique for the mandibular fracture. (In the above photo, the snapping turtle is seen at mid-surgery after the screws and wires have been placed in the shell; the surgeon is working to repair the jaw fracture.)
Turtles don’t always eat well in captivity, so the student volunteers decided to place a temporary feeding tube into the stomach of this patient. Feeding tubes are very well-tolerated by turtles, and in the event that they refuse to eat, we have a means of safely providing nutrition to them while they are healing.
This animal is now back in the water and healing well, but it will be some time before she is ready to be released. One of the reasons turtles make such great patients is they take a very long time to get sick; but this also means they take a very, very long time to heal! Occasionally, we have to house a turtle patient over the winter, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed that we can get this girl home well before then!