My daughter, Ella, and I are big-hearted animal lovers, so when we decided to go to the Florida Keys for some sunshine, sea and sand, we had to include a stop at the Turtle Hospital on the island of Marathon.
Upon arrival to the hospital for one of their public tours, we saw two ambulances that had been specially outfitted for turtle rescue. These mobile rescue units were painted orange and white and emblazoned with the words The Turtle Hospital Ambulance. We soon learned the ambulance engines were still warm from three recent rescues within a 24-hour period: Stacy, a juvenile green turtle; a 70-pound loggerhead turtle now dubbed Captain Hook; and Jack, a 7-pound green turtle. Each had their own story to tell – and each was a reminder about how much impact humans have on sea life, whether intentional or not. Fortunately, thanks to the amazing staff at the Turtle Hospital and their state-of-the-art care, all of these turtles will also have happy endings. Here are their stories:
Every June, Florida Fish and Wildlife biologists conduct their annual Florida Bay turtle population assessment. During this two-week period, every turtle spotted is captured, measured and weighed, as well as given a health exam. Stacy was one of the turtles netted by the biologists during this year’s survey, which was good news for her. She turned out to have large cauliflower-like tumors sprouting from her head and body, the most ungainly one a lopsided growth on her right cheek.
Realizing immediately that Stacy had fibropapilloma, a form of highly contagious herpes specific to turtles, the biologists called the Turtle Hospital and had her admitted. The Florida Keys Turtle Hospital is one of the few facilities worldwide that admits sea turtles suffering from fibropapilloma, so Stacy luckily only had a short ride to endure before receiving help.
Four days later Stacy was stabilized enough to have an endoscopic assessment undertaken to determine whether she had internal tumors as well. The turtles can recover from the external tumors if the offending growths are surgically removed, but internal tumors are usually fatal. Essentially the tumors monopolize blood supply and suck the life out of the turtles.
Fibropapillomatosis is a disease specific to sea turtles. It is caused however by a virus similar to human herpes. Infected turtles grow cauliflower-like tumors on their soft and hard tissues externally and sometimes internally on vital organs. The tumors range in size from quarter-sized to grotesque growths weighing up to three pounds.
Fibropapillomatosis was first documented in 1938 on a green turtle that had been captured around Key West, Florida. Since then, this scourge has become increasingly prevalent in green sea turtle populations around the world. In certain parts of Florida, 50 to 70 percent of the green sea turtles are now afflicted. Sadly, this disease has spread to other turtle species and is now also seen in Loggerheads, Kemp’s Ridleys, and Olive Ridleys. It is often associated with areas where human waste enters the waterways. The Turtle Hospital is involved in multi-institutional research to learn more about this relatively new and deadly virus.
So many of the patients we saw at the Turtle Hospital were recovering from tumor removal, some of them now amputees. But just as a dog can merrily get around on three legs, so can a turtle with three flippers.
Next Page: The Rescue of Jack