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
Jack, just a little guy at seven pounds, was also found to be suffering from turtle herpes. He was caught in a gill net, which in a fortuitous twist of seemingly unfortunate events allowed him to also be admitted to the Turtle Hospital for life-saving treatment.
Jack arrived weak and anemic, but after lots of TLC from the Turtle Hospital staff he is now eating on his own and very active. We delighted in seeing Stacy and Jack swimming around their pools knowing they were getting stronger and ready for a tumor-free future.
Soon, Stacy and Jack will undergo surgery and have those ungainly growths removed. Once removed, the turtles stay in rehab at the hospital until they can celebrate one year tumor-free (sounds like AA for turtles!). If additional tumors pop up, they too will be removed and the one year waiting period begins again. Once, they are tumor-free for a year, there is much fanfare and celebration as the turtle can then be released back into the ocean.
Next Page: The Rescue of Captain Hook
Captain Hook arrived as good pirates do with lots of silver – however Captain Hook is not a pirate, but rather a loggerhead turtle. And turtles have zero use for, nor appreciation of, silver, especially when in the form of a fish hook!
Florida Fish and Wildlife caught Captain Hook during their turtle population survey and although upon initial observation this 70-pound turtle seemed healthy, the biologists soon noticed a 3.5 inch stainless steel commercial hook embedded in his throat.
Captain Hook was immediately transported to the Turtle Hospital where he was met by veterinarian Dr. Cathy Connelly. X-rays were taken to determine the exact location of the hook and surgery begun. A PVC tube was placed between his jaws to keep his mouth open during surgery. After two hours of wrangling with the hook and trying different removal techniques, the hook was finally dislodged to the amazement of a tour group who was lucky enough to watch the tail end of the operation through a glass partition.
Captain Hook was an amazing patient as he did not struggle during the procedure. It was as if he knew this hook came from people and people would be able to get it out.
By the time Ella and I arrived to the Turtle Hospital, Captain Hook was in his own private pool recovering nicely. He was eating on his own and quite active swimming in circles and coming up for air and an occasional hello to visitors.
How You Can Help
Since 1986 when the Turtle Hospital opened its doors, over 1000 turtles have been rescued, rehabbed and released. As soon as Captain Hook is back in tip-top shape, he too will be released back into the sea. The Center is quite proud of its incredible record – as it should be.
For all of the harm done by humans it is good to know there are places like the Florida Keys Turtle Hospital that do what they can to remediate this harm. You too can help by making a donation to the Turtle Hospital (they are a tax-deductible nonprofit), visiting the hospital and sharing information with family and friends about how to be turtle-friendly.
Also, if you ever see a turtle in distress, please call your local Fish and Wildlife hotline. If you are in Florida click here. Signs of distress include:
- Listlessly floating on the surface
- Struggling but unable to dive
- Entanglement in fishing line, rope, netting or plastic material
- Apparent damage from a boat hit
- Washed up on the beach/shore, possibly very skinny or a small “wash back” hatchling
- Tumor growth anywhere on the turtle. Commonly on flippers and eyes.
Also, remember, all sea turtles are either endangered or threatened species and should not be handled by anyone unless authorized by your local Fish and Wildlife officials.
July 16, 2013 UPDATE: Since my daughter and I visited the hospital, three squirmy hatchlings arrived. Although, adult loggerheads can reach 200-300 pounds, these little loggerhead babes are so tiny they can fit in the palm of your hand — together. Read their story on the Turtle Hospital patient blog.
**As a thank you to the Turtle Hospital for providing material and photos for this post, I am donating 10% of my next paycheck to the Turtle Rescue Center, so please share this article, like it on Facebook and leave comments. The more love this article gets, the more I can donate to turtle rescue.**