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September 1, 2010

A Turtle's New Shell

Run over by a car, vet puts puzzle back together

The Humane Society of the United States / SPCA Wildlife Care Center

  • It'll be a few more months before this severely injured freshwater turtle will be fully healed. Photos by Dr. Stefan Harsch

  • Screws and surgical bands hold together the turtle's cracked shell while she's on the mend.

  • It was weeks before the patient could return to the water.

 by Julie Hauserman

Summertime can be deadly for freshwater turtles who cross roads in South Florida, and if it weren’t for quick care at The Humane Society of the United States’ SPCA Wildlife Care Center in Broward County, the large female with the cracked shell would likely have suffered a long, painful demise.

Instead, she’s on the mend, thanks to careful surgery by Dr. Stefan Harsch and veterinary student intern Alycia Monopoli from the University of Georgia. She had taken a special interest in the plight of the severely injured turtle.

Cars and Turtles Don't Mix

Like most female turtles, this unlucky one was likely traveling from one waterway to another to lay her eggs. That’s when a distracted driver ran over her.

“They have a tough shell, but a car will break it,” said Harsch, director of clinic operations for the SPCA Wildlife Care Center, a facility that rehabilitates all manner of South Florida’s wild creatures. “If the body cavity is unharmed, but the shell is fractured, we can help them.”

The car had cracked this turtle’s 12-inch shell, but her internal organs were intact. Harsch has become adept at turtle shell repair, which he says is “like putting a puzzle back together.”

“Every couple of years, the techniques get better,” Harsch said. “We have data on their long term survival.”

In times past, people would sometimes use epoxy to fill in areas where the shell broke away. But Harsch says studies show that the glue can make things worse, because infections may develop beneath it.

“Shell is not dead material, it is bone,” Harsch said. “This is bone surgery.”

An Intricate Surgery

First, the female turtle was anesthetized so she didn’t feel any pain. Then, Harsch and Monopoli used screws to drill into the shell, and secured it using plastic cable ties.  The idea is to restore the shape while her shell re-grows. Over time, she will re-generate the shell material, Harsch says.

During this time, for the next three to four weeks, she was kept out of the water. Because these animals don’t eat outside of water, the doctor had to insert a feeding tube to provide nutrition. The day finally came when he was able to move her outside to recuperate in an enclosed pond at the center.

“These injuries take very long to heal, especially on areas where the shell is gone, because they basically have to re-grow shell material,” Harsch said. “Additionally there was also a spinal injury present -- not a fracture, though. Her hind legs are not functioning correctly. She will stay with us for another six to nine months.”

At that point, if Harsch gives the all-clear, the turtle will be set free to continue her life in the South Florida wild.

“It was a great feeling to see this surgery was not only possible," Monopoli said, "but also provided her with much needed relief and most likely a life back in the wild once she’s healed.”

The SPCA Wildlife Care Center is operated in partnership with The Humane Society of the United States. It is located in South Florida and helps animals in the tri-county region.

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