Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 6:10-11
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

Medical Triage in Miami, Florida

Chris Tabaka
Staff Veterinarian, Memphis Zoo, Memphis, Tennessee, USA; E-mail:

Well before the break of dawn on December 28th, the first shipment from Kadoorie arrived in Miami and was driven up to Port St. Lucie, Florida. Jim Barzyk and Lonnie McCaskill worked steadily through the night to unpack the chilled animals and place them in Al Weinberg's spacious indoor pens to allow them to soak and stretch their legs. As daylight arrived, the morphometric and medical triage teams, as well as numerous volunteers arrived. Medical field stations were rapidly established and stocked with supplies. The morphometric teams set up just outside the heated warehouse while the medical teams set up under some palm trees in a field about 50 yards from the morphometric folks.

The author in Miami, Florida this past December.

A binful of adult Heosemys spinosa, spiny turtle.

The medical triage area consisted of four individual exam tables staffed by a veterinarian, a record keeper (generally a vet student), an experienced animal handler, and someone to draw up the various fluids and medications that were in constant demand as the animals flowed through each station.

The initial assessments were rapid but thorough. The animals were checked for external parasites, shell condition including shell rot and petechiation, hydration status, skin lesions, oral exams for such problems as anemia and fish hooks, muscle tone/strength, and alertness. The primary goal for the initial treatment was to get them rehydrated using warmed fluids intracoelomically, subcutaneously, orally, and/or cloacally depending on the species. Each animal was also started on antibiotics via individually dosed regimens depending on the condition, size, and species. Various other medications, including everything from antifungals to antiprotozoals to anthelminthics in severely parasitized animals/species, were also used. Sedatives were also used in a number of animals to remove fishhooks or to allow pharyngostomy tube placement and IV fluids.

After the animals were initially assessed and treated by the medical teams, runners then carried the animals to either the intensive care area/holding pens or into a new area where the turtles could continue to thermoregulate and rehydrate. This process continued throughout the day as we proceeded through one species at a time. The species from the first two shipments included subadult to adult Malayemys subtrijuga, Manouria emys emys, Notochelys platynota, Hieremys annandalii, Heosemys grandis, Heosemys spinosa, to the sleek black Orlitia borneensis.

Hieremys annandalii, the yellow-headed temple turtle.

Manouria emys, Asian brown turtle, with Dwight Lawson

Animals that died were set-aside for potential egg removal and complete necropsies to ascertain the cause of death. Due to the incredible efforts of all of the volunteers, the total number of dead in the first three days was only about 20 animals out of the almost 500 that were brought in. All carcasses were sent to the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection at Texas A&M University.

Andy Snider, reptile curator at the Detroit Zoo, and Dr. Barb Mangold, Wildlife Conservation Society.

Dr. Terry Norton and staff fromSt. Catherine’s Island, WCS.

There are innumerous people to thank for their work but in particular, I would like to thank the tireless efforts of fellow veterinarians Dr. Barb Bonner of the Turtle Hospital, Dr. Barb Mangold of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Dr. Terry Norton of St. Catherine's Island-Wildlife Conservation Society. The efforts of these dedicated clinicians in conjunction with their highly skilled teams made a tremendous difference not only to the future breeding efforts of TSA but also to each and every one of the animals that went through their skilled hands. Numerous other veterinarians including Dr. Charlie Innis, Dr. Joe Flanagan, Dr. Bonnie Raphael and many, many other zoo and private veterinarians also deserve endless thanks for the two larger shipments that followed in early January. Thanks also to Dr. Nimal Fernando, the staff, and volunteers at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden for all of their hard work. Last and far from least, thanks to all of the volunteers who spent countless hours not only working on the animals as they arrived in Florida but also working with them in their own homes and facilities. The amalgam of TSA is an inspiration and will hopefully serve as a model for other taxa in the near future.

Barbara Bonner from the Turtle Hospital discussing turtle care.