This sea turtle is lucky to be alive.
By Douglas Mader, DVM
For Veterinary Practice News
At 11p.m. Aug. 3, I was called out on a most unusual emergency call on the island of Big Pine Key in the heart of the Conch Republic.
I have been the staff veterinarian for the Marathon Sea Turtle Hospital for 17 years. The hospital, a converted strip club, is funded by donations and is dedicated to treating all species of sea turtles.
Over 100 sick and injured throwbacks to the dinosaurs come to the facility yearly. In addition, several hundred stranded or wayward turtle hatchlings often pay short visits to the hospital each summer.
A brightly painted orange and white turtle ambulance is available 24/7 to respond to any and all sea turtle emergencies like boat strikes, propeller cuts, shark bites, swallowed fishing hooks and so forth. However, on the night of Aug. 3, the ambulance and crew responded to one of the most heinous injuries we at the turtle hospital have ever seen.
The hospital rarely calls me in the middle of the night because most emergencies are not seen until daylight. When the phone rang at 11 p.m., I knew it couldn’t be good.
The Florida Keys, affectionately known as the Conch Republic, is a small community stretched over a single highway approximately 110 miles long. Whenever there is a crisis, everybody seems to get involved.
An emergency call went out on the marine radio for help when a family on a fishing trip spotted a sub-adult loggerhead sea turtle bobbing on the surface with a 4-foot-long spear sticking out of its head. The family pulled the nearly dead turtle into the back of their boat and returned to the docks. The local county fire rescue department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife arrived on scene at the same time that the Turtle Hospital ambulance and I showed up.
The 150-pound female loggerhead appeared dead when rescuers arrived. The spear’s point had entered the skull just above the left ear, angled downward and caudally. The balance of the weapon, about 31/2 feet of it, was sticking out grotesquely like a cartoon TV antenna. The free end of the spear had lodged under the captain’s chair. Every time the boat rocked or the turtle tried to move, the weapon wedged deeper into the head.
The spear needed to be cut so that the turtle could be moved from the boat and loaded into the ambulance. But the spear was tempered stainless steel, and traditional bolt cutters weren’t strong enough to cut through it. The fire rescue department had a diamond-blade cutting tool. The next big obstacle was to protect the turtle from, first, the tremendous heat generated by the blade cutting through the hard metal, and second, the vibration that the tool makes during the cut.
I used ketamine HCl (20 mg/kg, IV) to sedate the turtle. Then the spear was wrapped with towels soaked in ice water in an attempt to prevent the hot metal rod from burning the inside of the head while it was being cut. That would create swelling and more damage than the turtle already had.
The saw cut the spear approximately 15 cm from the skull—enough to allow the turtle to be transported, but hopefully, far enough away from the head to prevent thermal damage. By the time the saw made it through the spear, the towels on either side of the diamond blade were steaming.
Fortunately, the spear stayed cool. As soon as it was cut, the turtle was taken to the waiting ambulance and rushed to the Sea Turtle Hospital, about 25 miles up the highway.
In my 17 years at the hospital, this is only the second spear injury in a sea turtle I’ve seen. The other turtle was found dead.
The Fish and Wildlife officers on scene reported that the spear was not from a typical recreational diver’s gun. Rather, it was a case-hardened, high-velocity weapon shot from a pneumatic gun—the type used to bring down large game fish. A regular spear wouldn’t have gone all the way through the thick, bony skull of a large turtle.
We named the turtle Sara after one of the rescuers, who was celebrating her 17th birthday. Once at the hospital, Sara was started on fluids (LRS, 20 ml/kg, ICe q 24h), antibiotics (ceftazidime, 20 mg/kg, IM q 72h) and analgesics (dex medetomidine, 10 mcg/kg, IV, once and meloxicam, 0.2 mg/kg, IV, q 24h). Blood was collected and radiographs of the skull were taken. The spear had entered the left side of the skull, crossed completely through and wedged into the medial side of the opposite mandible. Of significance was a three-inch expanded metal barb, like the end of a toggle bolt, fully open inside the skull.
The turtle’s blood profile looked normal, including her packed cell volume, suggesting that the wound was either peracute or that she had not lost much blood from the injury. We decided to keep her sedated and medicated for the night, and attempt surgical removal of the spear first thing in the morning.
Sara was anesthetized (propofol, 1 cc/kg IV). A large speculum was inserted into her mouth so that the oral cavity could be visualized and the damage could be assessed. The spear had penetrated the salt gland on the left side of the skull, entered the back of the oropharynx and passed across the throat directly between the epiglottis and the glottis (partially blocking the airway), and exited the opposite side of the throat where the point lodged into the medial side of the mandible.
Because of the large barb, there was no way to back the spear out without doing tremendous damage.
Using needle-nose pliers, I reached inside the mouth and collapsed the barb, then, with care, backed the point out of the mandible and redirected it to the soft tissue region just behind the jaw, in an area known in mammals as Viborg’s triangle.
From there I made a small incision in the soft tissue and the spear was pushed completely though and out the opposite side of the skull from where it entered. I was prepared to pack the wound with hemostatic gel if hemorrhage had been a problem, but, fortunately, it was not.
Even though sea turtles live in the water all the time, they are air breathers (with lungs) like a mammal. So, if they have been anesthetized for surgery, we keep them out of the water for at least 24 hours and carefully monitor them. When fully recovered from the anesthesia, they are moved to a special recovery tank where we can monitor their swimming and breathing. During the first critical couple of days, the turtles can still drown.
Fortunately for Sara (and all turtles for that matter), turtles have very small brains for their large size. The spear missed the brain and all the vital structures in the head.
These sea turtles date back to the Carboniferous period and are one of the few animals that have been here on earth almost since time immortal. They’re tough critters. Without any doubt, their biggest threat to existence is man.
Fortunately, Sara made a remarkable recovery and was back swimming in a hospital tank within a couple of days.
The Federal Endangered Species Act allows for criminal prosecution for injuring a protected species such as a sea turtle. It is a third-degree felony with fines up to a year in prison.
To date, the reward money is over $16,000 for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person who speared the turtle. Visit the Sea Turtle Hospital website to learn more about Sara and other injured sea turtles.
Posted: Nov. 29, 2011, 6:40 p.m. EST<Home>
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