NC State turtle team rescues injured turtles

Turtles are threatened by traffic, lawn equipment and a shrinking habitat in North Carolina’s growing Research Triangle region. Students at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine bring the latest medical science to a volunteer team that rescues injured turtles.

RALEIGH, NC——A sign declaring “This office is protected by an Attack Turtle” hangs on the door. The office itself is located in a back corner of the Veterinary Health and Wellness Center at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The sound of barking dogs fills the space, even though the patients in the room are quiet. This is the office of the Turtle Rescue Team.

Plastic tubs and containers fill almost every shelf space in this cramped office. Turtles of various sizes, colors and species sit inside every tub.

“Part of the reason we care for the turtles is to give back to our community,” said Chris Masterson, an NCSU veterinarian student. “Because overpopulation is occurring we are taking more of their habitat, so this is a way we make up for what we are doing to the turtles, by taking care of the turtles and giving them a better life and putting them back in a place where they are a little more safe.”

Medical science mixes with common sense to care for injuries in this most unique of hospitals. Roughly 80 student volunteers who are veterinarian students or preparing for veterinarian school make up the team. They handle everything from intake and triage to care and release.

Cowfish, a giant snapping turtle is a typical patient. The turtle was found along the side of the road after having been hit by a car. Veterinarian student Mandy Womble is applying an anti-microbial ointment to the shell while veterinarian Gregory Lewbart, the program’s founder, holds Cowfish.

“We tried to repair the shell a little bit and we flushed it out to clean the wound, but right now we’re using this ointment to try and prevent any infection and also promote shell healing,” said Womble, as she used a small cotton applicator to cover the crack with a thick coating of the white ointment. “I think this will heal nicely even though it’s not totally aligned. But it will keratinize just like your fingernail.”

Womble then uses a small flashlight to try and look into and down Cowfish’s neck as the doctor picks up the large turtle. Cowfish apparently doesn’t like that and begins to squirm. Holding onto a large turtle as it wiggles isn’t easy. The doctor struggles but the student smiles.

“I love it when they are this active because that’s a good sign, it means they are feeling better,” adds Womble. “Snapping turtles aren’t very snappy or very aggressive when they are sick, so the fact he’s getting mad means he’s recovering and should be ready to be released soon.”

Vehicle strikes are the number one cause of turtle injuries, strikes by lawn equipment rank second, dog attacks are number three. A turtle-car collision appears to be what happened to another of the Rescue Team’s patients; the box turtle named Walking Stick. The turtle who are brought to the Rescue Team for care are all named by the students after other species.

“It sounds silly, but numbers are really hard for vet students to memorize will all of the other stuff going through our minds, “ explains Taylor Gregory, a vet student and member of the Turtle Rescue Team. “Plus, it’s more fun when we get to name them because it helps us to get more into the cases, and it’s better to walk into a place with snow leopards and gibbons and walking stick than case number 1504.”

Those fun names also mask the seriousness of the injuries. The team cares for more than 500 injured turtles every year. About half of those injured turtles will recover and be returned to the wild.

Walking Stick’s initial injury from that car strike is easy to see. The shell is cracked. The Turtle Rescue Team drilled small holes at the edge of the shell on opposite sides to pull the shell together. That procedure, along with the application of anti-bacterial cream is healing the shell. But what is not immediately clear is that Walking Stick is missing a leg.

“Sometimes when they get hit by a car there is nerve damage, which we will treat with an anti-inflammatory medicine” said Gregory, pointing to the healed skin where a leg was once attached. “But he never recovered, so we decided to amputate it. The good news is that turtles can do just fine with three legs.”

She then lays Walking Stick down on an exam table. The turtle starts crawling using three legs, as if on cue.

The Turtle Rescue Team was founded in 1993. There were 38 cases back then. The caseload has topped 500 injured turtles every year for the past few years. And the numbers of injured turtles continues to grow, which reflects the growth in Wake County. There are more people, more roads, and less habitat, as development continues to encroach on the places where turtles live.

“One of the things that is really challenging is that when a turtle is brought in, we have to look at that animal and say what are its chances,” said Gregory Lewbart, DVM., founder and director of Turtle Rescue Team. “On the one hand, everything has a chance because where there’s life there’s hope. But the reality is we know the turtle is not going to make it so we try to humanely euthanize those turtles so they aren’t suffering."

But Lewbart is quick to add that one of the things that make turtle such great patients is that they are tough. After all, turtles have been around for millions of years and they haven’t changed a lot. In addition, they are docile and have a very slow metabolism. However there is one challenge that every patient presents, regardless of the injury. Turtle Rescue Team members must work around the turtle’s shell.

“Turtles may be great patients but they are also challenging because of that shell,” adds Lewbart. “It’s so ironic that the thing that gives them strength and protects them is a barrier to us when we are trying to diagnose them and treat them."