Epoxied gopher tortoise and hooked royal tern

November 18, 2021

Joanna Fitzgerald | Director of von Arx Wildlife Hospital

A gopher tortoise and a royal tern were among the sixty-one animals admitted to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida this past week. Other admissions include a river otter, ten brown pelicans, two yellow-billed cuckoos, a great blue heron, a blue-gray gnatcatcher and a red rat snake.

Epoxied Gopher Tortoise

A woman in east Naples noticed a turtle near the edge of the lake behind her home. The turtle hadn’t moved for over twenty-four hours so she called the von Arx Wildlife Hospital for guidance.

Hospital staff knew immediately that the turtle must be quite ill if it wasn’t moving. Although the caller was unable to transport the turtle to our facility, she did secure it in a box until a volunteer Critter Courier could arrive to transport the turtle to the Conservancy.

The gopher tortoise turtle turned out to be very sick and badly injured. The tortoise was unresponsive with her eyes closed and was underweight. A healthy tortoise would keep its legs pulled tightly into its shell, but this tortoise’s front legs were hanging loosely from her shell and she made no attempt to retract them when handled.

The tortoise had a shell fracture on the left side of her carapace and bridge. A radiograph revealed her front left leg was fractured as well. The injuries on the left side of the body were similar to what occurs from a car strike.

The most disturbing part of the exam was the fact that there were strips of epoxy along the shell fracture indicating someone had attempted to stabilize the shell fracture on their own. 

Although an attempt to stabilize the shell fracture had occurred, none of the other health issues the tortoise was experiencing had been addressed. Without antibiotics and wound management, the shell fractured had become infected and necrotic. The fractured leg had not been stabilized which ultimately caused pain and suffering when the tortoise tried to move. All of these issues would have been treated if the tortoise had been brought to our hospital for immediate professional medical attention.

Sadly, the tortoise was in critical condition upon arrival and did not survive.

Epoxy on injured and sick gopher tortoise

Rescuing an animal is a terrifically kind action, but when members of the public attempt to care for an animal in their home, their actions go from helpful to harmful.

All sick, injured and orphaned wild animals deserve professional care in order to minimize the pain and suffering the animal endures. Remember that caring for injured, sick or orphaned wildlife requires state and federal permits.

Most importantly, all injured and orphaned wild animals have very specific medical, dietary and husbandry requirements that must be met for the animal to heal and grow up healthy. 

Please, if you think you have found an animal in distress call the von Arx Wildlife Hospital staff for assistance. Never attempt to care for a wild animal at home. Receiving immediate professional medical attention significantly increases an animal’s chances of making a full recovery and being returned to the wild.

Royal Tern Fish Hooked

The royal tern was admitted after sustaining a fishing hook injury at the Naples Pier.

Hospital staff administered pain medications prior to removing the hook. The tern was given antibiotic and placed on oxygen in an animal intensive care unit to rest after the hook was removed. 

The royal tern arrived with a fish hook and lure embedded in its nostrils and beak bloodied from the injury.

The tern became agitated after several hours and was moved from the intensive care unit to a larger recovery space. Staff offered it a fish diet, but the tern showed no interest in eating. 

The following day the tern was transferred to the bird room for further recovery time.

Staff focused on getting the tern to eat. Once the tern began eating on its own, handling was minimized which ultimately reduced stress. After six days of care in the hospital, the tern was strong and its wound had healed allowing it to move to an outdoor flight recovery space for further reconditioning prior to release.

Royal terns are just one species of shorebird congregating in flocks on our local beaches this time of year.

Black skimmers, gulls, sandpipers and many other shorebirds also spend their winter on Southwest Florida’s beaches.

The increase in number of birds, along with the increase in seasonal human visitors means shorebirds face more human-related dangers, including injuries from angling activities and increased interactions with beachgoers.

Responsibility Tips

If you or someone you know is an angler, be responsible.

  • Never cast your line if birds are flying nearby.
  • If you accidentally hook a bird, do not cut the line.
  • Reel the bird in carefully but quickly.
  • A bird struggling against a taut line may cause the line to break and allow the bird to fly off entangled in hooks and line. 
  • Covering the bird’s head with a towel once it is reeled in will calm the bird.
  • If the hook is not deeply embedded, gently push the hook through the skin until the barb is exposed.
  • Clip the barb off using a wire cutter and back the hook out.
  • Step away and allow the bird time to gain its bearings and fly off.
  • If the hook is deeply embedded or has been ingested, contain the bird and bring it to the wildlife hospital for immediate medical attention.

It is crucial that we all promote coexisting with wildlife in everything we do.

Coastal development has resulted in loss of natural habitats forcing flocks of shorebirds to share beaches heavily utilized by people. Often times these birds have migrated hundreds of miles and need to rest and gain strength so be mindful if you are walking the beach.

Avoid disturbing flocks of resting birds by walking around the flock. Walking through flocks of resting birds forces them to fly and expend energy. A bird that is already in a weakened condition has no ‘extra’ energy to waste. 

Most importantly, please don’t let kids harass birds when visiting the beach. Teach children to respect wildlife and educate them about the harm they are causing when they chase birds.  

Recent Releases

Two eastern cottontails, a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a yellow-throated vireo, a common yellowthroat, two laughing gulls, a palm warbler, a red-shouldered hawk, an anhinga, two Virginia opossums, a grey squirrel and three raccoons were released this past week.

Opportunities to Help

Please visit our website to learn about the work done by staff and volunteers at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Get involved by becoming a volunteer, obtaining a membership and donating to help us continue our work to protect Southwest Florida’s water, land, wildlife and future.

Joanna Fitzgerald is Director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Call 239-262-2273 or see conservancy.org.