By Karin Krisher
I’ve always liked learning about turtles (I find that most people do) and think each species beautifully represents a bridge between a time we never knew and the time we live in. To learn more about these fascinating creatures and shake up our topic picks, I asked my friend Steven Nelson of The Georgia Sea Turtle Center to teach Vetri-Science and our customers all about his patients and his hospital’s cause.
GSTC, which makes its home about one hour south of Savanna, GA and one hour north of Jacksonville, FL, has one mission, around which every piece of work the hospital does revolves: “Research, Rehabilitation and Education.”
“Through sea turtle rehabilitation, research and education programs, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center will increase awareness of habitat and wildlife conservation challenges, promote responsibility for ecosystem health and empower individuals to act locally, regionally, and globally to protect the environment.”
They make it sound simple! In reality, the work that Steven (a certified vet tech) and his colleagues have completed since the Center’s opening in 2007 has been varied and extensive.
As the only wildlife hospital in southeast Georgia, GCTS can’t focus exclusively on turtles. The hospital assists other coastal inhabitants, such as birds, snakes and alligators, along with four of the seven species in the turtle world. The hospital is also the sister facility to an endangered species breeding facility called St. Catherine’s Island, home to ring-tailed lemurs and all sorts of African hoofstock and Asian birds.
Currently, Steven tells us, the hospital has about 25 sea turtle patients in rehabilitation. Many of those were brought to the hospital’s attention by people walking the beach or boaters who came across the injured turtles. Others are cases that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources or Florida Fish and Wildlife have brought to the staff.
In addition to caring for local animals, the hospital staff also travels to other states (as far as Massachusetts!) to assist local veterinarians. Each day is different, Steven says, but the main routine consists of prioritizing and completing treatments for each of the in-house patients.
What is a turtle treatment like, anyway?
“Treatments include physical examinations, bandage changes, debridements and tube feedings. Surgical procedures (endoscopy, laparoscopy, exploratory, laser) are often scheduled for some cases, and other times we have emergencies come in,” Steven says. Blood work is another big part of the job, as well as wound healing techniques.
Turtles require medical attention similar to any animal’s. Injections (vitamins, antibiotics, pain medications) are often given during treatments. Honey is a common topical wound treatment; wound-vac therapy is an option, as well.
But why are these turtles being injured in the first place?
“The biggest threat to sea turtles is human interaction (fishing line, artificial lighting, beach development, habitat loss, boat strikes). Boat strike trauma accounts for 25% of cases at GSTC,” Steven says.
Other threats include: Dredge interactions, shrimp trawl drowning, predation, extreme weather conditions (like water temperature changes that cause mass stranding), algal toxins, disease (fibropapillomatosis, a herpes virus), and oil spills.
It’s hard to tell when any of these things have affected a sea turtles, as they, like most animals, have adapted to hide weakness to avoid predators. However, there are indicators, such as obvious traumatic injuries, low weight, thinness or excess barnacles.
The list of threats tells us just how vulnerable turtles truly are.
While turtles (specifically the Galopagos tortoise, the longest lived chelonian) can live to a ripe old age (Steven places it between 80 and 100), it’s rare that they do. The odds of a sea turtle hatchling making it to adulthood are roughly 1 in 3,000.
Which makes the work the hospital does that much more important. The GSTC is part of the conservation efforts that are bringing back the numbers to the sea turtle population. (Sea turtles are endangered in the United States.) Other countries, though, still harvest sea turtles for their eggs, meat and shells, says Steven, making the global effort difficult.
The effort, in general, is not simple. Financial restraints, dealing with those that do not understand or support the hospital’s mission, decisions about euthanasia and dealing with loss of a patient are the hardest parts of the job, says Steven. But the best parts make it all worth it.
“What I love most about my job is knowing that I am making a difference in the world and playing a direct role in saving a species. The best part is releases. It’s very cool to have saved an animal’s life and given it a second chance at survival, then to see it swim, run or fly away back into the wild again.”
If you want to learn more about The Georgia Sea Turtle Center, coastal species, and the efforts to save them, check out http://www.georgiaseaturtlecenter.org. You can also donate, adopt or plan a trip to visit the patients and meet Steven and staff in person.
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