NMLC staff work on a stranded turtle at the group’s Buzzards Bay facility.
By Ruth Thompson
Sat Aug 01, 2009, 09:00 AM EDT
When Patty was found, she was barely alive; immobilized by shock, blind by burst blood vessels in her eyes. She was fortunate she was rescued when she was and that the National Marine Life Center (NMLC), where she was taken, was so close and able to accommodate her.
Patty is a diamondback terrapin turtle, a species on the endangered species list as threatened in Massachusetts.
“She was brought to us on March 17 cold stunned,” Don “the turtle guy” Lewis, chief operating officer at the Buzzards Bay facility, said
Lewis explained diamondback terrapins go into a state of dormancy during the cold months of winter. They burrow beneath the mud until the warmer weather arrives. If their burrows are disturbed by animals or unintentionally by people, however, and the turtles are exposed to the frigid climate, their bodies will go into a comatose-like state that can cause irrefutable damage and often even death.
Patty is one of the lucky ones.
She was whisked into the veterinary clinic at NMLC, where she was given antibiotics for infection, physical therapy to assist with her limited rear leg movement and plenty of clams and shellfish so she could regain her strength.
She is still not fully recovered, though her eyesight has returned, and, as Lewis pointed out, she is regaining use of her rear limbs again.
“Her condition is improving steadily,” NMLC President and Executive Director Kathy Zagzebski said.
Patty enjoys the comfort of her own tank at the clinic and is even brought out to bask in the sun in the luxury of a kiddie pool beneath the watchful eye of animal care volunteer Juan Bacigalupi.
The plan is to get Patty well enough so she can eventually be sent home to her natural habitat.
Lewis and Zagzebski are hoping for more stories like Patty. They are overseeing the addition of a new hospital at the center and are looking forward to being able to assist more animals and save more lives.
NMLC is a nonprofit marine animal hospital. The goal of the center is to rehabilitate stranded or injured sea turtles, seals, dolphins, porpoises and small whales. Once healthy and able to fend for themselves, the animals will be released back into the wild.
NMLC came to life mainly thanks to a local philanthropic couple who were distressed there were no hospitals in the area to take care of stranded animals.
“Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Hornor was the National Marine Life Center’s first board chair,” Zagzebski said. “Her passion for NMLC’s mission helped raise awareness and support. When Betsy passed away in 1999, her husband, Townsend ‘Townie’ Hornor took over as board chair. Under his leadership, the hospital began to take shape with some initial design drawings.”
The center has also drawn the attention of two well-known individuals.
“Walter Cronkite was the honorary chair of our first capital campaign, which raised the money for our Life Support System Building,” Zagzebski said.
A longtime resident of Martha’s Vineyard, Cronkite was very familiar with the plight of stranded marine animals in the area. In a 2003 video for NMLC, Cronkite is quoted as saying, “It’s perfectly obvious that as we have more strandings on the beaches of New England, the greater the necessity for the National Marine Life Center.”
Zagzebski also noted that Dr. Bob Ballard, the discoverer of the sunken Titanic, is an inaugural member of the NMLC Advisory Board.
A scientist and ocean explorer, he recognizes the importance of building a hospital for stranded animals on Cape Cod. In the same 2003 video, Ballard is quoted as saying, “Just imagine next time when one has a major stranding, people there will have other options instead of just euthanizing the animals. So, I think
that the sooner we can get this center going, the better.”
“They’re heroes to every marine animal stranded in the area,” Zagzebski said.
NMLC admitted its first patient in 2004.
“It was a loggerhead sea turtle named Eco,” Zagzebski said.
Eco was suffering the effects of having been cold stunned. She had undergone initial treatment at the New England Aquarium. At the National Marine Life Center, her treatment consisted of regular health checks and a proper diet to increase her strength in preparation for release.
The causes of stranding, and subsequent medical and treatment needs, are many and varied, Zagzebski explains.
“Most of the sea turtles admitted will suffer from cold stunning,” she said. “Additional conditions will include pneumonia, bone fractures, arthritis, lesions, and infection. They will require regular blood tests, radiographs, and occasional specialized tests such as CT scan and ultrasound. Many will require antibiotics and antifungal medication as well as specialized procedures.”
She said seals may be admitted year-round, and more frequently in late winter and spring, and may suffer from a variety of conditions including disease, malnourishment, maternal separation, entanglement, and trauma.
Dolphins, porpoises, and whales may also be admitted year-round suffering from a variety of conditions including disease and trauma.
All will require daily monitoring, feeding, water quality testing, and regular health checks.
Zagzebski said one unique condition some dolphins and whales face is mass stranding, when two or more unrelated animals strand.
“Cape Cod sees the third highest rate of mass stranding in the world, and the highest in the U.S.,” she said. “Many of the animals that mass strand are reasonably healthy but suffer significant effects resulting from the stranding itself – abrasions, compression injury, sunburn, bone fractures, dehydration.”
Lewis recalled a pilot whale stranding in 2002 in which a pod of 43 whales were caught in shallow water. Despite the efforts of volunteers and veterinary personnel, all 43 had to be euthanized.
“They were too sick to be released and too large for any rehabilitation pool in the northeast region,” Zagzebski said.
Sadly, she said nearly 99 percent of all stranded marine animals will perish simply because there is no place to bring them.
“The problem is that there is no place in New England to bring a pilot whale or dolphin that needs medical attention,” she said. “There are pools in Duxbury and in Biddeford, Maine, that are occasionally available for a porpoise, but none for larger animals.”
The National Marine Life Center will change that, offering rehabilitative services to animals as large as a pilot whale.
“This will be numero uno for rehabilitation for stranded pilot whales,” Lewis said.
To date, the National Marine Life Center has cared for 21 endangered sea turtles, one harp seal, 29 endangered red-bellied cooters - a freshwater species of turtle - and eight endangered diamondback terrapins, a brackish water species of turtle.
“When our new hospital opens to admit sea turtles Oct. 31, we will be able to admit up to 30 endangered sea turtles, depending on size, at once,” Zagzebski said. “Eventually, when our hospital is fully complete, we will also be able to care for seals, dolphins, porpoises, and small whales (up to three tons).”
There might also be the need to provide temporary shelter and care for an animal not commonly found in the waters off the Cape.
Dennis the Manatee was mentioned. The animal was stranded in the waters off of Dennis a few years ago and needed to be transferred to Florida, where manatees live. Unfortunately, Dennis passed away en route, more-than-likely from the stress he was under.
If the hospital at the center had been operational, Dennis would have been able to take refuge there and could have been attended to before his trip south.
And though manatees are rare in the area, Lewis and Zagzebski said the hospital could aid in stabilizing an animal, thus raising its chances of surviving being transported to another destination for longer-term care.
“We will be a weigh station that can accommodate a one-off situation,” Lewis said. “We will be a temporary home where we can bring the experts to the animal and then transfer it to an appropriate hospital.”
Lewis said the center gets funding “from wherever we can,” and points out that contributions are deductible.
“We’re not an aquarium,” Zagzebski said. “Our goal is to get the animals back into the wild.”
She said she understands and is appreciative of public interest in the animals that may wind up in their care, and the center will try to provide a way for the public to view the animals and keep track of their progress in a way that won’t compromise the animal’s health and wellbeing.
“Just being in the hospital can cause stress for the animals,” she said. “We’ll be trying to give them a quiet and restful place to recuperate.”
“The core of the center is to take care of the animals,” she continued. “Everything else springs from there.”
For more information about the National Marine Life Center, visit www.nmlc.org