Today is the most important holiday of the year: Groundhog Day. While we don’t actually believe in groundhogs here in Florida (the southern extent of their native range is Georgia), we know many of our northern friends put great stock in a certain Pennsylvanian rodent’s morning ritual on this day. Whether or not the little rascal sees his shadow, spring is just around the corner. And while we will miss our friends when they journey back north, no one will miss the extra traffic. Especially the tortoises.
Peace River Wildlife Center has a dozen turtles and tortoises in long-term care right now. A few were attacked by predators (mostly dogs), some are suffering from respiratory infections (just like the rest of us), but most were hit by cars. With their slow metabolism, it can take up to a year for a tortoise or turtle to heal from an injury. Depending on the species, their care and diet must be adjusted accordingly. How do we know what type of food, temperature, and humidity each patient requires?
Let’s start with a little science lesson. Within the Kingdom Animalia (animals, as opposed to plants), Phylum Chordata (basically, having a spinal cord) is the Class Reptilia. This Class is composed of the Orders Crocodialia (25 species-crocodiles, alligators, etc.), Sphenodontia (tuataras, a single living species found only in New Zealand), Squamata (9,600 species-lizards, snakes, etc.), and Testudines or Chelonia (400 species-turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.)
It is rather an American convention that all chelonians are called turtles. Other languages do not seem to relish the confusion that the English language within North America stirs up with rampant ambiguity of certain words. All tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. Of course, English is weird. There are no fewer than seven ways to pronounce the letters “ough” (rough, cough, drought, dough, bought, through). Be thankful if you learned English as a child because as second languages go, it’s a doozy. Quit trying to distract me from the science lesson. Sit still and be quiet; it’s almost over.
So with some 400 species, how does one know the correct way to help a chelonian (say “key-LOW-nee-an”) in trouble? It is difficult to memorize the many breeding times, exact fit within the families, and at which stage of life a particular animal prefers water to dry land. We could be here until next Tuesday going over the specifics of each family, genus, and species.
I can see your eyes glazing over already. Let’s make this simple—look at the feet.
At Peace River Wildlife Center we have heard people relating the following story many times: “We tried to return that ungrateful turtle to the water, but he just kept crawling back out.” Upon further questioning, it is ascertained that the “ungrateful” reptile in question is a land-dwelling tortoise. Surprisingly, they can hold their breath and walk across the bottom of a shallow creek or pond occasionally. But if repeatedly thrown into deep water, especially the ocean, they will drown.
Obviously people are trying to be helpful. Especially at the beach, we hear so much about sea turtle nesting (May through October.) Most egg-laying and hatching is done at night, but it is not impossible during the day to see a mama turtle who got caught up in a lawn chair that was left out, or a hatchling that got confused about which way to go to get to the water. Hence the admonishments during that time of year to remove all items from the beach overnight, fill in any holes dug in the sand, and keep lights from shining toward the water. But there are also gopher tortoises that live in the dunes by the beach. Placing one of them into the water could be a death sentence.
There are four main categories of chelonians with which to be concerned. There are sea turtles, land-dwelling tortoises, land turtles, and fresh water turtles, but only two basic differences that matter in the long run. Does the animal spend most of its time on land or in the water? The most obvious way to discern that difference is to look at the feet. A turtle with flippers or webbing between the toes belongs in the water. A tortoise or turtle with blunt feet and stout nails for digging belongs on land.
Of course there is some overlap of these areas. Most turtles that live in the water will lay their eggs on land, so do not be too quick to help these little ladies back into the water. You may see a gopher tortoise at the edge of the sea. It is not known if they actually drink salt water or use it to cool down, but this sight is not uncommon. As they walk back toward the dunes to their home burrow, please do not try to throw them back into the water.
Most gopher tortoises are rescued when they attempt to cross roads. People wishing to help with this are advised to ensure their own safety first and foremost. If the tortoise is not injured, simply place it a few feet away from the edge of the roadway in the direction it was heading. If its progress is impeded by a curb or wall, try to get the animal around the obstruction to the other side and back to the direction in which it was heading as if the curb, bridge or building was not there.
Pond-dwelling turtles can be found in parking lots and on roadways as well. These animals can be returned to the nearest water, often a retention pond. Simply place them at water’s edge and the turtle will enter if it wants to. It is not necessary or advised to place it or throw it into deeper water.
If you see a turtle or tortoise in its natural environment, even if it looks like a baby, and there does not appear to be anything wrong with it, leave it alone. Tortoises and most turtles are very slow growing. A gopher tortoise of only a few inches can be up to three years old. Even immediately after hatching, every chelonian is precocial, meaning it is not dependent upon a parent and can feed itself.
Sometimes the best thing we can do to help the environment is to sit back and enjoy it. If you want to take a more active role in helping wildlife in distress, educate yourself as to what is best for each species and what you need to do to keep yourself and the animal safe. If you really want to get involved, PRWC (or your local wildlife rehabilitation facility) always needs volunteers to help in a variety of jobs. Especially if Phil doesn’t see his shadow and our seasonal volunteers head for higher grounds.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Gopher tortoise after two months of healing
In case you missed Fashion Week in Paris, do not despair. It’s time for Couture Week at Peace River Wildlife Center. This week we will be hosting a “Who Wore It Better?” campaign. As seen on Facebook (the harbinger of fashion sense worldwide, as well as the People of Walmart) we will compare a few fabulous creatures wearing the same apparel and leave it up to you to decide who wore it better.
A few weeks ago, someone donated a pair of pillowcases in a pretty pastel coral colour with a ruffled edge. I mentioned that it looked like a skirt and everything went downhill from there. Maybe we are all getting a little punch-drunk from the 20 admissions per day. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep from taking care of all the baby mammals in home care. But every now and then you just have to take a step back and laugh at yourself (or your fellow coworker, as the case may be.)
I took one of the pillowcases home and turned it into a skirt, leaving the other behind as a cage liner as intended by the donor. As luck would have it, I happened to have a blouse that matched it quite well, both in colour and style. I was feeling pretty plucky, and so decided to challenge the patients at PRWC to see if they could wear said garment with the same panache that I did.
First up is a gallant gopher tortoise. She throws the shrug over her shoulders and poses like a prima donna. She was admitted after having been hit by a car and has a fracture on her carapace (upper shell.) She is recovering nicely from her physical wounds (but may need some serious counselling if her friends and family see these pictures.) Luckily, this tortoise will be released soon, but not all are so fortunate. If you see a tortoise crossing a busy roadway, stop only if you can do so safely. Help the tortoise to the side of the road it was headed toward and place it as far from the shoulder of the road as possible.
Don’t hate the beautiful opossum
Our next model is a young Virginia opossum. “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful,” she emotes. Many people fear opossums, but these mild-mannered creatures are extremely beneficial to the environment. They eat disease-carrying ticks and venomous snakes without getting injured. Due to their low body temperature, they do not carry many of the viral diseases that most mammals can get. Being naturally docile creatures, their primary mode of defense is to roll over and play dead, looking and smelling the part. So, while she may look lovely in her couture, I’m fairly confident that I smell better at least.
Our final contender is a pair of eastern cottontails working their adorable magic. They snuggle into the pleats like they belong there, making them their own. These two neonates were found in the middle of a fenced dog yard, in a shallow divot with a few blades of grass, a couple tufts of hair, and no mother.
Cottontails snuggle into the pleats
While that may sound like an inappropriate place for a rabbit nest, it is a common scenario. Mother rabbit does little to construct her nest and places it where she can observe potential predators coming at her new family from a distance. She only visits her nest twice a day to feed her young, to lessen the chances of predators following her to her babies. Unless they look dehydrated or injured (or not well-dressed), leave the bunnies alone.
We’ve all seen Hillary in her vacuum cleaner bag and The Donald facing off against an ear of corn and a troll doll. Now you get to decide who you think makes the best fashion statement at PRWC. Because with everything that is wrong with this country and the world today, fashion faux pas are definitely the biggest issues to focus on.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
Dr Robin sports her pillowcase pleats
Southwest Florida, you are welcome. I now have complete control over the weather and you can thank me for the ending the drought. In the past, all I had to do was plan a trip to the beach and it would guarantee rainy, chilly weather. Apparently, I now have additional bows in my precipitation quiver. Recently, any mention of the words “release” or “yardwork” are also met with a Noah-worthy deluge.
Peace River Wildlife Center is particularly busy at this time of year. We routinely admit 10 to 20 patients every day during spring and summer—with baby bird and mammal seasons in full swing, we are inundated with displaced, orphaned, and kidnapped babies of every species. We also see injured breeding adults, as they make the same ill-informed choices we did during our wistful youths, so intent on that one driving urge that they forget to watch for vehicles or dodge the chainsaw. With the drought now ebbing, many animals are moving from one location to another to find the ideal water source at just the right level, again indifferent to traffic and obstacles.
It is imperative that PRWC release any rehabbed animal as soon as it is ready to go, so that we can free up the minimal cage space we have for incoming patients. But lately, it seems as if all I have to do is utter the “R” word, and the storm clouds roll in. Releasing the babies we have tenderly cared for over the past few weeks to months is difficult enough under the best of circumstances, but kicking them out into a tropical storm is terrifying for them and for us.
Osprey healing from a fall from the nest on a blustery day
So, on a recent decent day, I found myself putting over 220 miles on my car, booting out all the releases I could. I went from Punta Gorda Isles to Charlotte Harbour to Murdock to Nocatee to Arcadia to Naples, releasing red-shouldered hawks, osprey, gopher tortoises, and song birds. The Grateful Dead have had shorter tours than that. FYI, that is roughly the same distance between Punta Gorda and Key West or Freeport, Bahamas—lovely destinations for a weekend getaway (traveling as the crows flies; your mileage may vary depending on how adamant you are about staying on paved roads, or roads at all for that matter.)
While some headway was made, I spent most of an entire day on the road. My next book will be a compendium of road etiquette. Use your turn signal, be polite and conscientious on the road, do not use your flashers in the rain, learn how to navigate a traffic circle and a four-way stop. I’m actually thinking of changing professions. I want to be a traffic officer so I can shoot people who don’t obey traffic laws (at least the ones I think are important.) That’s a thing, right? Can I at least shoot out their tires? This is why I don’t drive any more than absolutely necessary. I was road-raging long before road rage was cool.
Of course, by the time I got back to PRWC we had admitted 18 more patients to replace the 23 I had released. And so it goes. Not to mention, I had spent all of the good weather doing work-related chores. When I finally got home and tried to mow my back yard, I got two whole passes done before it started raining on me again. I’m going to need better weather or taller pets—my dachshunds are getting lost in the tall weeds of their dog yard. Now that I have mastered rain-making, maybe I will work on stopping the grass growing at precisely 2.5 inches using the power of positive thought. And maybe get that pet goat.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Who let the dogs out? Woof, woof, woof, woof-woof! This is more than just a fun little song released in the summer of 2000 by the Baha Men. (See, I do know a few songs that were released after the 70’s.) This is now the battle cry at Peace River Wildlife Center. We implore all families with canine companion members to be more responsible with their fur children.
PRWC has had a rash of gopher tortoises admitted for dog bite wounds. Unfortunately, there is no miracle cream to cure this rash. The gopher tortoise is a threatened species, but we’re not threatening to send the Federales out to arrest your dogs. We just want everyone to understand the species a little better and maybe that will help us all respect these ancient beings.
Fossil evidence points to the existence of turtle-like creatures during the Jurassic Period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth (208-144 Million years ago.) By the Tertiary Period (66-2 million years ago) there were numerous species of turtles and tortoises, many similar to those we see today. The gopher tortoise is one of those survivors, probably because of his penchant for digging deep burrows for protection from predators and environmental dangers like fire.
The gopher tortoise’s burrow is not only his home, but a refuge for numerous other species. For this reason, the gopher tortoise is considered a Keystone Species. He is needed within the habitat for the health and survival of as many as 300-400 other species, from mice to snakes to insects to frogs, which also live in the active tortoise burrow. Many other species take advantage of the burrow by stationing themselves at or near the opening to eat the resident prey as they travel to and fro. Some birds have been known to take shelter from the cold or heat by checking into a burrow for a brief period of time.
Active burrows can be 3-52 feet long and go to a depth of 6-22 feet, depending on the water table. Abandoned gopher tortoise burrows can be taken over by foxes, skunks, armadillos, and even burrowing owls. The best way to distinguish a tortoise’s burrow from one that houses only another species is by the shape of the opening. The hole to a tortoise’s burrow is flat on the bottom and arched at the top—a half moon shape. There will also be an “apron” of loose sand in front of the hole. A round hole is a clue that another animal has created or taken over that den.
For this reason not only is the gopher tortoise afforded state and federal protection, but his burrow is also covered under the same laws. It is illegal to handle, harass, or possess a gopher tortoise. It is likewise illegal to destroy or disrupt a burrow. If you see one attempting to cross a busy roadway, it is acceptable to assist only if you can do so safely. Remember, your own safety comes first! Always place the traveling tortoise well away from the side of the road in the direction he was headed.
If you see a tortoise you think has been injured, call PRWC or you nearest wildlife rehabilitation facility for advice. Most of the time, an injured tortoise that is able to get back to his burrow will heal much faster than one admitted to a wildlife hospital. Covering a crack in his shell can increase the risk of locking in infectious materials. Antibiotics can kill the normal gut flora and alter his digestion. The stress alone of being in such an alien environment can be fatal. Hatchling tortoises are precocial, able to take care of themselves immediately after birth. There is no such thing as an orphaned tortoise. If, after talking to a rehabber, you have been advised to bring the gopher tortoise in, it is legal for you to do so. Place him in a box or bin, covered loosely, and transport as quickly as possible.
Some of the dog attack victims PRWC has admitted recently have had life threatening damage done. A few of them had legs partially or completely chewed off. These tortoises will need to have permanent placement found for them, as they can no longer burrow effectively. PRWC has one such gopher tortoise resident already, Legolas, for which we had to get a special permit since he is such an endangered species.
Most dogs probably don’t see gopher tortoises as prey, but rather as a toy. They don’t mean to cause life threatening injuries to a highly endangered species. Heck, my dogs couldn’t overthrow a subversive ant hill. They don’t have much more in the way of higher thought processes than when dinner time is (and don’t get me started on the whole daylight savings time change business—throws them for a loop every time!) So maybe we should step up to the plate as the slightly more evolved species (theoretically at least) and help our canine friends. Monitor your dogs when they are outside. You will not only be doing a service to wildlife, but you may well extend the life of your canine companion.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
Gopher tortoise hatchlings
Gopher tortoises attacked by dogs