“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”  -Mary Shelly, “Frankenstein”

I am no Mary Shelly and this is no Frankenstein, but we have been doing some interesting work at Peace River Wildlife Center this week.  We have been inundated with injured turtles and tortoises this year, with a dramatic increase in those hit by cars over the past month.

When turtles and tortoises come in with fractured carapaces (top shell) or plastrons (bottom shell), we must first ascertain how much damage has been done.  A turtle’s spinal cord lies along the inside of the carapace.  If there has been a fracture that crosses midline, there is a good chance that the spinal cord has been severed.  The tortoise may appear to be walking, but a closer look at the rear legs can reveal a more guarded prognosis.

Normally a gopher tortoise will raise its body up, pick up one rear leg at a time and place it further in front of its current position—a detailed explanation of what “walking” is.  When there has been spinal trauma in this species with its primitive neurological system, they may still move forward, but the rear legs splay out to the back and side in a swimming motion without lifting the body.  This is called spinal walking and is a result of reflexes that go from the foot to the spinal cord and back.

For true walking, the nerve impulses need to travel from the foot to the spinal cord to the brain and back.  A disruption along the spinal cord stops the impulse from reaching the brain and results in a special type of paralysis.  Not only does the tortoise drag the back of his shell, but innervation to internal organs is compromised and the gastrointestinal tract can shut down.

The “lucky” tortoises that have fractures in their shells at locations other than across midline stand a better chance of survival.  Although healing is extremely slow in this species (go figure, huh?), the shells will heal in a way similar to our skin.  The fracture sites will granulate, fill in with a firm scar tissue, and eventually harden until it is almost as firm as the original shell.

Sometimes these fracture sites do not line up properly or are unstable.  In these cases, the rehabbers at PRWC pull out their best Dr. Frankenstein impression and bolt the two sides together with screws and wires or zip ties and super glue.  Often all that is needed, though, is tape.  We place medical grade (3 or 4 inch 3M Medipore) tape over the fracture site until it has started to heal.

On the plus side, this low-tech solution allows some air in to the wound and helps keep flies and dirt out during the day while the tortoise is outside enjoying the sun and soaking in shallow water bath.  On the other hand, the tape costs close to $10 per roll and does not have a less-expensive generic equivalent at this time.  Since it needs to be removed to help speed the healing process while the patient is in the hospital overnight, the frequent bandage changes can be quite costly.

With almost a dozen turtles and tortoises in rehab right now at PRWC, we have quite the assortment of injuries.  We have one tortoise with a broken front leg, two with questionable spinal injuries, one is missing a large chunk of shell on his side after having been side-swiped by a car, a dog-chewed gular plate (front of the plastron) and many others with various nicks and dings.

Tortoises can remain in our care for up to a year while they slowly heal.  Only time will tell if they will be able to be released back to the areas from which they came or if they will become permanent residents at some licensed facility.  If we could cobble all the working parts together from the assorted patients, we could indeed make a few Frankentortoises and get them back out there more quickly.

Ideally the best solution for these injuries is to avoid them.  With the influx of our winter residents and lots of wonderful visitors, we all need to help spread the word.  Drive carefully and be ever-mindful of the wildlife surrounding us here in southwest Florida.  We are fortunate to have such a variety of wild things here that have allowed us to share their world, but we must take care of them.

If you see a gopher tortoise in the road and can help it without getting hurt yourself, please feel free to do so.  Some people are under the mistaken assumption that as a Federally protected species, tortoises cannot be handled at all.  You may pick up the wayward reptile and place it well away from the side of the road, in the direction it was headed or it will turn around and start over.  If it has been injured, note the exact location where it was found (so we can return it to its home territory if possible) and bring it to PRWC for treatment.

And please remember that gopher tortoises are land animals.  They do not have webbed toes and cannot swim, so when attempting to “rescue” them, do not put them in water.  Or they will have too much in common with Dr. Frankenstein’s creature and be “borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

A young gopher tortoise that was chewed on by a dog.
A young gopher tortoise that was chewed on by a dog.
Gopher tortoise healing after having been hit by a car.
Gopher tortoise healing after having been hit by a car.