Gimme Some Fin [Clinics Series]

After a whirlwind of returning from New Zealand (a 16 hour time difference), flying up and back to New Jersey for a wedding, then driving three hours to get out to the coast, I was definitely ready for the somewhat slower pace of spending two weeks at the beach, learning about the medicine and husbandry of sea turtles!

The rotation took place predominately at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center in Topsail Island, NC.  Each of the seven students were assigned 3-4 turtles and tasked with getting to know those turtles, including evaluation of their medical information with the intention of determining whether or not they were ready for release back to the ocean.  On our last day at the center, we got to participate in the release itself!

The mornings were dedicated to turtle husbandry, which was mostly for our benefit since the volunteer teams at the center operate like well-oiled machines and certainly don’t need us.  I’m thankful we were allowed to help though, because it definitely allowed us to build a bond with “our” turtles and enabled us to understand more about what goes into caring for them.

Early on, we did health exams on the sea turtles, which involved drawing blood and performing physical exams to evaluate how well they were healing from their various maladies, which included cold shock, fishing line entanglement, and boat strikes.  We relied very heavily on research papers in our evaluation of “normal” in our patients.  Zoo medicine is young in comparison to other branches of veterinary medicine, and reptile medicine is even younger.  Consequently, veterinarians who treat reptiles rely heavily on research journals and conversations with colleagues to find any new information available on the health and medicine of these creatures. We spent time quite a bit of time reading and discussing research papers, with topics ranging from anesthesia to the ethics of rehabilitating wildlife.

We spent several evenings camped out next to a sea turtle nest, hoping that we would get to catch a glimpse of a nest hatching, commonly referred to as a “nest boil.”  Sadly, we didn’t have any luck in this regard, but our little group nevertheless bonded over huddling quietly in the dark, listening to the ocean waves crash nearby.

When it came time for the release, people appeared in droves to cheer the turtles back into the ocean.  The crowds can get so big for these releases that the turtle center doesn’t announce where they’ll be happening until the day before the release occurs, and still hundreds of people respond.  There were several news stations that covered the release, and the vet school public relations department came down to the coast to document the 20th anniversary of the partnership between the school and the rehabilitation center.

This rotation, as far as I know, is the only one of its type in the country, and maybe in the world.  I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to spend two weeks with the kind, compassionate volunteers who dedicate hundreds of hours to this organization and to participate in the release of six beautiful turtles back into the wild.


This post is part of a series documenting my clinical year in veterinary school.  To read more from the series, please visit the Clinic Series homepage.

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