Sunday, January 31, 2010

Patty the turtle continues slow recovery

Wicked Local photo/Ruth Thompson

By Ruth Thompson
Gatehouse News Service

It’s been almost a year since Patty was brought to the National Marine Life Center (NMLC) in a state best described as close to death. And she’s still going strong, despite some new challenges, thanks to the marine animal hospital being able to house and sustain her.

Patty is a diamondback terrapin turtle. Diamondback terrapins are on the Massachusetts endangered species list, which makes Patty’s recovy all that more imperative.

When she arrived last March at the NMLC, she had been immobilized by shock, blinded by burst blood vessels in her eyes and her rear legs were partially paralyzed.

Her ailments were the result of being cold stunned, which is caused by exposure to the cold winter weather.

Diamondback terrapins go into a state of hibernation over the winter, but if their burrows are disturbed, they are left vulnerable to the elements.

Turtles that are cold stunned often die.

It was fortunate that the NMLC was able to accommodate Patty. Veterinarians treated her with antibiotics, she received physical therapy to help her regain the use of her hind legs and there was plenty of food, rest and relaxation to build up her strength.

The goal of the NMLC is to allow the animals in their care to fully recuperate and then be released back into the wild.

That had been the intention with Patty, but she still remains at the NMLC.

“She doing really well,” NMLC President and Executive Director Kathy Zagzebski said. “Her attitude is great. She’s eating well, and her vision is fully restored.”

Unfortunately, Zagzebski said Patty has developed a very serious bone infection.

“She’s lost portions of her shell,” Zagzebski said, “but there’s new shell underneath.”

Zagzebski said the condition has been seen before in turtles that have been cold stunned.

Patty, however, is taking things in stride.

She is enjoying the luxury of her own tank at the clinic and is again being given antibiotics. She is scrubbed down daily to help remove the dead shell and prevent infection, and then an antibiotic-laced dressing is placed over her shell.

“Every single day we completely change the water in her tank and clean the rocks off so that there is nothing in her environment making her sick,” Zagzebski said.

Trained volunteers perform many of these tasks.

“She’s really engaging,” Zagzebski said. “She has a great personality, though she has her moods. Everyone enjoys her.”

Patty’s rear legs are getting stronger, and Zagzebski said her “mobility is much better, but she failed her swim test.”

And while Zagzebski would still like to see Patty one day sent back to her real home, there’s no rush for her to leave the NMLC.

“It will take some time for the bone to grow back,” Zagzebski said. “But she’ll be all right, she’s a fighter.”

In good company

Patty isn’t the only turtle in residence at the NMLC.

There are currently two species of juveniles being tended to, as well.

Around the corner and down the hall from Patty’s private sanctuary are a group of eight northern red-bellied cooters and a group of eight diamondback terrapins, like Patty but only younger and smaller.

The northern red-bellied cooters are kept in a large tank together, while the diamondback terrapins, most no bigger than a quarter, are kept segregated from each other because they’re more aggressive towards one another.

The red-bellies are part of a state program to help recover their population.

“The Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program runs a ‘headstart’ program,” Zagzebski said. “They collect 100 hatchlings a year and places them in partner organizations – wildlife centers, zoos, schools. Partner organizations care for the turtles over the winter following specific protocols. During this time, the turtles put on the equivalent of three years of growth, so that when they are released, they are significantly more likely to survive.”

Zagzebski said around Memorial Day weekend, the NMLC and the other partners will turn the turtles back over to the state, at which point they will be measured and examined before they are released.

The public is invited to the release.

The red-bellies are approximately 4 months old, and the diamondbacks are about 3 months.

Zagzebski said the diamondback terrapins don’t grow as quickly as the red-bellies.

“The reason we have (the diamondbacks) is because they did not hatch early enough to survive the winter,” Zagzebski said. “Their nest wasn’t hatching.”

They finally hatched at the home of Don “the turtle guy” Lewis before being brought to the NMLC.

They’ll be a bit stronger and healthier than their brothers and sisters who hatched in the wild. That’s because the turtles in the wild slept in the mud all winter, while the little guys at the NMLC were pampered and well fed.

The tiny turtles are tended to by volunteers who assist in everything from feeding them and recording changes in their size to cleaning up their tanks.

Lori and Tim Benson of Onset are charged with weighing and measuring the red-belles and then carefully photographing the turtles and logging in the information.

“We want to ensure the red bellies are growing at a rate that will allow them to be at least 85 millimeters upon release,” Zagzebski said. “We don’t want them to grow too quickly, however, because that can have negative health effects. By measuring and weighing the turtles weekly, we can chart their progress and compare to other years of our data, as well as to data of other partners, to ensure the animals are growing at an acceptable rate.”

Kathryn Biscoe of Buzzards Bay feeds the diamondback terrapins.

“Volunteering is fun,” she said. “I have some free time on my hands and come down here two days a week. I love all kinds of animals, anything from a worm to a rhinoceros.”

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