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Keys Turtle Hospital On Cutting Edge Of Saving Sea Turtles

Nancy Klingener
Veterinarian Doug Mader removes fibropapilloma tumors from a patient at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon.


The unassuming blue-green building in Marathon once housed a strip club. Now it is a modern medical facility on the cutting edge of veterinary medicine applied to sea turtles.

The Turtle Hospital started in the 1980s, in the motel next door. It started taking in sea turtles that had been hit by boats or tangled in fishing line. And it has always seen patients, especially green sea turtles, with fibropapilloma tumors.

But those numbers have been growing substantially in recent years. 

"In the early days we would see one or two cases a week. Now we're doing seven to 10 cases a week," said Doug Mader, the veterinarian who leads the medical care for the turtles.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Not all Turtle Hospital patients have tumors. This hawksbill turtle is recovering from a boat strike injury to its shell. Hawksbills are among the rarest sea turtles; their shells were once prized to make jewelry and accessories.

The tumors are linked to warm water, so warmer seas could be leading to an increase in frequency, Mader said. He also said the increase could be because turtle populations are rebounding, 40 years after they were protected in state and federal waters.

Last year, the Turtle Hospital had 93 rescues. By mid-September this year, it had already reached 140 cases.

Twice a week, Mader or associates from his staff at the Marathon Veterinary Hospital operate on turtles. When they get a new case, the first thing they do is look inside the turtle with an endoscope.

If they find any internal tumors, the turtle is euthanized because the tumors will eventually starve the animal. External tumors are removed with lasers.

These days, many of the turtles with tumors have them covering both eyes. Formerly, turtles in that condition were euthanized. Not anymore.

Now a Turtle Hospital ambulance travels to Pinecrest to see a veterinary opthamologist on Fridays.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
A green sea turtle named Hilda recovering from eye surgery is one of the first to get a feeding tube. After putting in the tube, the vets check with an X-ray to make sure its in the right place.

  "We have anywhere from two to nine turtles with us," said Bette Zirkelbach, the hospital's manager. "We'll run her anaesthesia machine, she'll physically do the surgery, then we load the ambulance back and we'll be resucitating turtles in the back of the ambulance all the ride back. It's a pretty intense day, but it hones your skills."

Other external tumors are removed by Mader and his staff, using lasers. They'll operate only for an hour at a time. Any longer under anesthesia, and the turtles tend to die after the surgery.

The Turtle Hospital staff has been learning on the job since they started taking care of sea turtles. There's no textbook for sea turtle medicine. Mader collaborates with colleagues at similar facilities around the world to share information.

One recent Tuesday, he was trying something new: a feeding tube. Such tubes have long been used for dogs and cats, but turtles were a challenge. The turtle esophagus is shaped like an S, allowing it to pull its neck back into its shell.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Turtle Hospital staff members hope the feeding tube will give Hilda a better chance of recovering from surgery. Instead of catching her and forcing food and medications down her throat, now they can just send it through the tube with a lot less stress on the animal.

Mader had heard about a new technique from a colleague in Italy, and he gave it a try. A small green sea turtle named Hilda was just back from eye surgery and still weak. Mader put in the feeding tube, then gave Hilda a quick radiograph to make sure it went to the right place.

"I'm really happy with that. A new dawn at the Turtle Hospital," Mader said. "If it works, it's going to be really good to give them nutrients and calories and food and fluid and antibiotics and stuff without having to actually hold them and fight them and force their mouth open. We can just sneak up behind them and give them their medicine."

Mader and staff operate under the public eye — literally. The Turtle Hospital is open to the public. Seventy thousand people a year tour the premises. If they're there on surgery day, they can watch the vets in action, working to save an endangered species, turtle by turtle.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.