By Joanna Fitzgerald | Director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital
A gopher tortoise was among the 102 animals admitted to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida this past week. Other admissions include fourteen black skimmers, a downy woodpecker, a mottled duck, a Florida box turtle, and four Virginia opossums.
A family traveling on vacation rescued the gopher tortoise from the side of US-41 several miles east of Collier Boulevard. They called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for assistance after realizing the tortoise was still alive despite being severely injured. The FWC staff member believed that, from the description given, it was a Florida softshell turtle; since softshell turtles aren’t an imperiled species, he stated FWC could not send an officer to assist.
Leaving the injured turtle on the roadside was not an option for the family; they went online, found information for the von Arx Wildlife Hospital, and called for assistance. Hospital staff reassured the rescuers we accept all native wildlife in need of help. The family was hesitant to transport the turtle; literally, their car was packed full with people and vacation gear, but they managed to make space on the passenger side floor. Upon arrival, hospital staff confirmed the injured creature was a gopher tortoise, not a Florida softshell turtle. Gopher tortoises are listed as a threatened species in Florida.
The tortoise suffered extreme damage from the car strike; a large section of the carapace was missing leaving internal tissue and organs exposed yet the tortoise was alert, responsive and was keeping her head tucked in tight inside her shell. The family had experienced a range of emotions – distress when they found the injured tortoise; frustration while trying to find help for the tortoise and a degree of sadness knowing the only treatment option available was humane euthanasia. Ultimately, there was relief knowing the tortoise’s suffering wasn’t prolonged.
Please, if you see an injured animal in need of assistance, offer help. Apathy toward other living creatures is unacceptable. Our community is incredibly lucky to have a wildlife hospital; animals can be brought to the Conservancy and receive professional medical attention every day of the year.
A second gopher tortoise was also misidentified last week. A member of the public saw the tortoise listed as a sulcata tortoise, available for adoption, on Collier County Domestic Animal Services (DAS) Facebook page. The woman knew the gopher tortoise wasn’t a sulcata tortoise. She called DAS but was unable to convince them it was a gopher tortoise.
Von Arx Wildlife Hospital staff became involved when the woman sent a picture of the tortoise from the Facebook post to von Arx Wildlife Hospital staff who also agreed it was not a sulcata. After several phone calls, staff at DAS were convinced the creature was a gopher tortoise and transferred it to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital for treatment.
The tortoise endured several days of misguided assistance prior to ending up at DAS. First, by a landscaper who watched the wayward tortoise for four days as it continued to bump up against the back of a building. Believing it was a water turtle, the landscaper kept putting the tortoise by a lake only to have it return to the back of the building. Secondly, by the woman the landscaper sought assistance from; she also thought it was a water turtle and soaked the tortoise in water because ‘it looked dry’. The woman finally called DAS because the tortoise continued to return to the back of her building and she believed it was someone’s lost pet.
At the wildlife hospital, the tortoise showed signs that she had aspirated water into her lungs, most likely a result of being placed in water. Currently, the tortoise is on antibiotics, recovering in the reptile room; her condition is guarded and being closely monitored.
Many turtles and tortoises are displaced when their habitat is destroyed by development and fragmented by roads. If you encounter a turtle or tortoise that seems displaced or is attempting to cross the road, offer assistance.
Injured turtles should be taken to the wildlife hospital for immediate medical assistance. Covering the turtle’s head and body with a towel can help calm the animal making it easier to handle.
If the turtle is uninjured, place it out of danger in the direction it was headed. If you are unfamiliar with the area, call the Conservancy. We can look at a map and find appropriate habitats near the area where the turtle was found.
Never put a turtle directly in a lake, pond, canal, or ocean; instead, place it near the edge of the water and let it enter the water on its own accord. As illustrated by our tortoise admissions last week, misidentifying turtles is very common and can have detrimental consequences. Putting a land tortoise or box turtle in the water may cause serious health complications or lead to drowning. Call the staff at the wildlife hospital for guidance if you have any questions.
A downy woodpecker, a black-necked stilt, four killdeer, a chimney swift, a brown thrasher, four eastern cottontails, a northern mockingbird, an eastern screech owl, a mourning dove, two gopher tortoises and three evening bats were released this past week.
Opportunities to Help
Please visit the Conservancy website at www.conservancy.org to view all of the amazing work done by staff and volunteers at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Your volunteer time, memberships, and donations are vital and help us continue our work to protect Southwest Florida’s water, land, wildlife, and future.