Saturday, October 24, 2015
Turtle Rehab at Whitney Lab: How Cool Is That?
Whitney Lab opens Sea Turtle Hospital to meet regional demand for rehab centers
Posted: October 24, 2015 - 11:36pm | Updated: October 25, 2015 - 12:11am
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GRAHAM.MARTIN@STAUGUSTINE.COM Four 1,100-gallon sea turtle treatment tanks await occupants at Whitney Laboratory's new Sea Turtle Hospital on Saturday morning, Oct. 24, 2015. From left, Vivian Merchant, from Citra, is seen on the left.
By JAKE MARTIN
The Sea Turtle Hospital at Whitney Laboratory opened its doors — or rather its four 1,100-gallon tanks — on Saturday.
Catherine Eastman, sea turtle program coordinator at Whitney Lab, said its main focus will be on treating fibropapillomatosis, a disease process commonly — and increasingly — impacting sea turtles found in this region.
The disease can compromise a turtle’s immune system and lead to growth of tumors on the soft tissue of its body. External tumors can impair vision and movement, while internal tumors can be deadly.
Eastman said the idea for opening a hospital came after she and other sea turtle patrol volunteers found they were transporting sick or injured sea turtles long distances to the nearest facility.
The nearest sea turtle rehabilitation centers were in Volusia County, about an hour south of St. Augustine, and Jekyll Island, Georgia, about two hours north.
She said before the hospital’s opening, the nearest center capable of treating fibropapillomatosis in turtles was more than 200 miles from St. Augustine.
“That’s a far drive for volunteers to do, but also it’s not what’s best for the sea turtles,” she said. “We kind of identified a gap here.”
Each of the hospital’s four tanks has the capability of using the center’s sea water system or can operate as a self-contained system, as each tank is outfitted with its own filtration system.
Eastman said this is particularly important for quarantined turtles with fibropapillomatosis, as it is contagious.
The hospital at Whitney Lab will also treat turtles with other ailments or injuries, such as boat strikes, ingestion of plastic, exposure to cold or fishing-related injuries.
Eastman said they’re seeing more turtles in and around the estuary, which means more chances for interactions with boats, fishing lines and other hazards.
“Having another outlet to treat them, and one that’s much closer, is great,” she said.
The Sea Turtle Hospital is funded primarily through private donors, although it did receive a State License Plate Grant from the Sea Turtle Conservancy this year. Grant money will be used to support the facility’s surgical care equipment.
The University of Florida will also provide funding as the program becomes self-sustaining.
The hospital is permitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and is a part of the Florida network of sea turtle rehabilitation centers.
Eastman said the hospital will also be able to accept long-distance referrals from FWC in the event when other centers are filled.
“Sometimes there’s a ton of turtles, and sometimes there’s not,” she said. “Because of our relationships, we’re able to spread the burden when needed.”
Eastman said anyone who sees any injured wildlife, including sea turtles, should call FWC Wildlife Alert — at 888-404-3922 — rather than a hospital or rehabilitation center.
She added anyone who suspects a sea turtle is sick or injured should not attempt to handle it or bring it to the hospital on their own.
“There can be so much that can happen negatively by intervening, so it’s better off to get a professional involved, and they’ll know what to do,” she said.
She said the goal, ultimately, is to rehabilitate sea turtle patients and release them back into the wild.
Five of the seven sea turtle species worldwide nest on Florida beaches with loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtles found nesting on Northeast Florida beaches.
The hospital’s first patient, however, was actually a gopher tortoise that had been bitten by a dog on its shell.
Steven Nelson, a veterinary technician at Whitney Lab, was helping rehabilitate the tortoise during the hospital’s grand opening on Saturday.
Nelson said wound vacuum therapy would provide constant negative pressure on the wound site to promote growth of healthy tissue and clear debris.
He said the hospital had received the tortoise that morning and that it would undergo the vacuum therapy and regular cleaning of the wound for several days.
Eventually, he said, they will begin taking him on short walks to build strength before releasing him back into the wild.
Nelson said turtles and tortoises unable to be released back into the wild but that are healthy enough to leave the hospital can be referred to nature centers.
“We’re strictly rehab,” he said. “Our goal is just to make them better and then we’re very eager to get them out the door and release them back into the wild.”