The Princess and Me
by Richard Oram
People give me turtles, most often Red Eared Sliders. So happened last October, as a referral from the Nature Center which doesn't want them. Sliders are by far the most common turtles in the US; they are the old Woolworth's and ones-you-can-now-get- in Chinatown kind. They are not native to the northeast so the Nature Center, eschewing invasive species as they do, refers people who lose interest in their pet turtles to me.
About October 15 a lady calls and then brings a Slider, a nice big one, perhaps 15-20 years old. Who knows how long it had been captive, likely its entire life. My outside turtles, as opposed to the small inside ones, of course, live in an enclosure until it gets too cold. (The "turtle pen" wasn't designed right... not deep enough for hibernation as we learned in a very unfortunate way, and that's all I'll say about that.)
So this new "Big Guy" joined the other six, and it being chilly October, they all begin the hibernation thing; at that point it's just that they are relatively inactive, popping up from the water only on warmer days, not eating anymore, kind of packing up for the winter. By late November I drain the water and carefully poke around to get them out. All seven were there, all fine it seemed. They then winter in an enormous tub in the garage, where it stays 40 degrees or so, happy as clams if you will, year after year, coming up on 10 years now.
In March on a nice day the garage tub gets drained and out they come. My ritual is to place them all in a corner of the pen and watch as one then the next and the next decide that it's safe to do more than sleepily poke a head out of its shell. Before long they have all plopped into the water, and basically hit the snooze button -- the water is still cold, like November, so I don't expect them to show themselves again until April.
So it's April. The best spring day yet always enables an inventory, as it did this year. But that Big Guy was sluggish, like barely getting himself to a rock and the sun, whereas all the others were basking as if it was Miami Beach. He wasn’t swimming and floated in a strange way. I had increasing concern.
As with other sickies, I activate the hospital tank where the water is warmed with a heat lamp… like summer time when the basking is easy. He seemed to like that but sure didn't look good. His head was drooping onto the rock, his "lips" were ghoulish black, and I honestly thought he was not going to make it. Turtles are really hardy though, and the biggest threat to captive ones is just not being taken to the vet soon enough when they are sick. I learned that, sadly. So I put the poor thing into a bucket and off to the vet we went; that was Friday.
First thing she said was Big Guy was female. While we talked turtle for a while, the visit was really just an exam and her specific advice was just to heat her up more, so I used the aquarium heater from the baby turtle tank to raise the hospital tank water to 80 degrees. But “heat her and call me in the morning” didn’t make me confident that we’d have a quick turnaround, and as other vets had given my sick turtles xrays, I knowed-it-all (the internet is never wrong) and went back to the vet on Saturday. She was admitted for overnight observation and tests.
While the situation was grave, when checking her in there was some joking about her need for a new name: Big Guy wasn’t right for a female so we renamed her Princess, given that she needs such special attention.
The next day the vet reports that she took x-rays, which showed no infection or congestion. She also gave her vitamins, and when I arrived to take Princess home, the vet provided me with a powder that I had to mix with water to make into a pancake-like goo to put in a plastic syringe to feed her. And she needed more heat. So in addition to the basking lamp, the heater went to the max, making the water about 90 degrees.
I also covered the tank to keep more heat and humidity in, and put a light bulb under the rocks making it like a sauna. With the heat, light and humidity, the hospital tank became an ICU. I was hopeful that we had the right protocol, and the vet and I agreed that the big hurdle was to get her eating. But the pancake stuff wasn’t to her liking, not at all; she’d hiss, snap at the syringe as it got close, and retreat into her shell when her attack failed.
She’d also pee—that seems to be a last defense: if a turtle gets picked up by a raccoon for example, the pee is supposed to make the attacker change its mind. So this seemed really torturous but actually, it was good that she’d do the defense stuff, as otherwise there really wasn’t much life in her. When I’d finally put the goo in her mouth, she’d get really upset and start clawing, i.e., abandon the retreat defensive mode and basically freak out – ever seen a turtle gag?
Most of the goo would just squish out of her mouth. After a few days of at best very limited success with the syringe feeding, I thought maybe she’d go for some turkey, but that didn’t appeal either. (Aside: when I was buying the turkey, looking at the “ends” section, I overheard a lady saying to her husband, “The turtles will like this” which of course led to conversation and soon after their visiting me, but that’s another story.)
With no evident progress or cooperation from Princess, I decided to be more aggressive. I reverted to the goo and syringe but came at it from a different angle. I held her upright and then squished the goo into her mouth, letting gravity help. It looked like water boarding and she liked it even less. I felt bad even knowing I might be helping her, but it seemed like desperate times calling for desperate measures. I continued this for a few days.
In the same time I got an infrared bulb (IVB) that is recommended for reptiles kept indoors, because they really do need sunlight and vitamin D. Basking isn’t just about heat. It’s likely that Princess, in her earlier captive life, had a vitamin deficiency; even if a turtle is near a window it doesn’t get the infrared rays because the glass screens it out. Most people have no idea what they really need.
Yes! She began to perk up in a couple days. Was it the heat, IV light, humidity, vet’s vitamins or the feeding? I think it was the feeding, but whatever, we were making progress. After 3 or 4 more days, the next phase was to get off the goo, which I imagine she appreciated, especially because I began to feed her shrimp. She was tentative about it at the start, she was very timid and still is skittish, but a couple days of shrimping and she was a new woman. Trying to be cute I got her to take the shrimp from my hand; “I can even get a princess to eat out of my hand,” I said with pride. Real pride… I was really proud that I seemed to have saved Princess.
Her black lips were gone, she’d bask with her head up, and bask less. I made the water deeper to force her to swim more, and she was good with that. When the shrimp ran out I got more (we had shrimp for dinner twice that week, a lunch too), but the next step was to transition her back to turtle food. I had a fresh can and without a pause she started eating that. While you’re only supposed to feed turtles twice a week, she’s chowing every day. Last night she got some salmon. A bit curious is that there’s yet to be much poop in the tank, but I guess that will come in good time and I’m not impatient for that. But everything about her looks great now.
A next step is to re-socialize her. That could have issues too as she probably lived alone for many years. Maybe that played in to her recent issues… not playing well with others. On the vet’s advice I’m leaving her in the hospital until it gets quite warm outside, i.e., avoid another harsh transition. But I’m thinking about having a visitor, maybe supervised visitation by a couple of the babies because even one more big one in the hospital, despite it being a 40 gallon tank, would make it too crowded and stressful. They are social creatures; a sickie a few years ago – Tortellini – got a lot better when we brought in a friend. Turtles get depressed?
I’ll say this as a conclusion: “Who knew?” or “You never know.”
That is, when a new pet comes you just don’t know their history. It’s an adoption as opposed to a birth. But a good assumption is that they haven’t been cared for well. Another tangent is that this year, with the help of my turtle friends from the turkey department, there’s a turtle egg gestating outside. I’m not optimistic but maybe next year Princess will do me a good turn and, well, getting captive turtles to successfully breed is a challenge; hatchlings are the Holy Grail.
So there you go, Princess and me. Spring 2013, the year of the Princess. Love conquers all.