The Turtle Hospital received a very lethargic loggerhead turtle on October 28, 2000. The turtle seemed to have a respiratory infection and standard treatment began. Little did the staff know that “Rusty” would be the first of many loggerhead turtles to strand in the Keys (and a few on mainland Florida) with the same mysterious ailment. In addition, there has been a significant increase in the number of dead loggerheads to strand in both the Keys and mainland Florida.
Since October 28, the Hospital has received 35 loggerhead turtles with the same symptoms: dehydration, pneumonia (fluid in lungs), extreme lethargy (turtles cannot lift their heads, show very little movement), lack of eye response (do not blink),elevated glucose, liver enzymes, and white blood counts (a sign of infection). Standard treatment procedures have failed, and these turtles show little sign of improvement. Meanwhile, some of the best veterinarians and researchers in the country have been working to discover a cause and treatment for this ailment.
The turtles were originally kept in the rehabilitation facility, in mist tanks to keep them moist with just a few inches of water (the red in the photo is a reflection of heat lamps placed over the turtles). They were not placed in deeper water because the staff felt there was a danger of drowning for the weaker turtles. The recent cold weather in Florida has lowered the water temperature, requiring that the remaining turtles be brought into the hospital itself so that they are not spending all their energy trying to stay warm. The turtles are receiving fluids, are currently being tube-fed because they are unable to eat on their own, and all are on antibiotics (several types have been tried). The daily care for all remaining turtles is very time-consuming and the dedicated staff has worked out a schedule so that nearly ’round-the-clock care is being provided. Teamwork skills have also been refined to lift and move these animals as they range in size from 113 to 240 (!) pounds.
35 lethargic loggerheads have been received at the Hospital. Five of those have been sent to other facilities (Clearwater Marine Aquarium & the Marine Life Center at Juno Beach) and 26 have died, leaving 4 live animals here. Although numerous vets and researchers are working on the problem and numerous animals have been necropsied, we still do not have an answer or treatment for this deadly illness.
UPDATE MARCH 30 2001:
Since February 27, 2001, The Turtle Hospital has not received any more lethargic Loggerheads. Hoping the worst is over volunteers are now concentrating on the ones who are left. Four turtles are left, Fats D., Chubby C., Olive Oil, and Brutus. Fats D. is eating and swimming although she still has pneumonia but is improving every day and the outlook for her is a full recovery. Olive Oil has also improved steadily from moving hardly at all and being very edematous to being able to move all of her flippers and swim around her tank during timed swimming sessions. Her edema has decreased considerably and she shows interest in going after squid when it is placed in front of her although she is still unable to open her mouth. Brutus is also responding by paddling around her tank during timed swim sessions with her rear flippers but not showing as good as a response with her front flippers. Chubby C., unfortunately is not showing any real improvement. As of yet there still have been no confirmed findings from the tests being run.
Swim sessions consist of one-half to one hour sessions of swimming in their tanks in shallow water. Foam paddle boards have been attached to the plastron of Brutus and Olive Oil so they are able to float but still use their flippers which hang over the sides. This enables them to exercise their flippers without having to worry about the water becoming too deep for them to lift their heads.
APRIL 22, 2001 UPDATE:
We are starting to see some wonderful improvement with Olive Oil and Brutus. Both are now continually in one to two feet of water and are off their foam swim boards and swimming around their tank. Two days ago Olive ate some very small squid heads on her own. Both Olive and Brutus can eat small squid heads now but still have trouble picking them up with their mouths. Volunteers place the squid heads in their mouths and they are able to swallow them. This is a great achievement for these turtles and the volunteers here are ecstatic! These two turtles have been at the hospital for over three months and a few times in the beginning thought to be one of the many that would not make it. Chubby C. is now staying in the water during the day but dry docked at night, she also is showing more movement. She came in three weeks after Olive Oil and Brutus so she still has some catching up to do to achieve what Olive Oil and Brutus have, but volunteers have faith in her.
MAY 15, 2001 UPDATE:
Olive oil is eating whole squids on her own and is now in a full tank of water. Olive spends most of her day sleeping, fully submerged at the bottom of her tank. Brutus is just a few steps behind Olive oil in his recovery. Brutus is eating squid bodies without any help from volunteers. His water level has been increased everyday and he is now swimming in full tank of water. We have seen him resting on the bottom of his tank as well. Chubby C. has increased her movements, her support was removed this week and this morning she ate a whole squid on her own for the first time! It took them approximately three months of full time rehab to finally eat by themselves. Volunteers at the hospital are beyond happy at this moment. Chubby is still not in a full tank of water but will be gradually introduced to deeper water throughout the next few weeks.
After a couple of weeks Chubby is now in a deep tank and eating squid. All four Loggerheads have made it and will be scheduled for release soon.
JULY 12, 2001 RELEASE DAY !!!!!!!!!!
The day everyone at The Turtle Hospital has been waiting for, it has been a long, hard time in coming but it finally came. Through tears and cheers Brutus, Olive Oil, Fats D. and Chubby C. were released by the people who worked so long and diligently in trying to save all the turtles that came in. The Turtle Hospital would also like to thank the volunteers that were not present at the release who also gave up their time and worked hard in helping these final four survive – we could not have done it without all of you. Thank you!
All photos copyright Larry Benvenuti