by Whit Gibbons

April 23, 2006

Countless animals are killed or injured every year on highways. I certainly do not advocate that the average person try to deal with an injured raccoon, bobcat, or bear, but anyone can handle a hurt turtle; some people even take them home. Sometimes a broken shell can be repaired. But what do you do if it can’t?

A question I received from someone in Pennsylvania last week brought to the forefront a problem that anyone caring about wildlife might face. What do you do with an animal that would be better off dead than alive?

Here’s the question. “I am currently a pharmacy student doing research at Temple University, and I need a turtle expert. My teacher received a telephone call from the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Hospital saying they could not find the right drug combination to euthanize a large turtle that had been hit by a car. For two days they tried traditional agents to no avail and were forced to chop the turtle’s head off. My assignment is to find an easier way to euthanize a turtle, but I cannot locate the necessary information. If I could find a physician to talk to or the proper place to search it would be greatly appreciated.”

First, I should point out that someone forwarded this email to me, so I was not the “turtle expert” the pharmacy student originally directed the question to. Second, the implication that pharmacists at a major veterinary hospital do not know how to euthanize a turtle without resorting to an ax or butcher knife is secondhand material from someone else’s email. I would like to think that most pharmacists could find more palatable solutions.

My answer was simple and straightforward, and did not even acknowledge his reference to finding “a physician to talk to.” For what? A turtle? Anyway, my answer: “One cc [cubic centimeter] of formaldehyde injected from a syringe through a needle inserted into the foramen magnum will kill a turtle in three seconds. You should probably also look up information on pithing, which doesn't even require formaldehyde. Become drug free.”

None of these procedures sound very pleasant, but the point was to tell someone how to put down a large, injured turtle in a humane manner, which means as fast as possible. The student responded with an email that asked, “Would it be possible for you to direct me to a place that would give me the exact instructions and amounts? I have searched and searched. . . .”

The instructions in my initial email might not have been transparent to someone who never had a biology course. But I assumed a pharmacy student would know that formaldehyde is a chemical used as a preservative, the foramen magnum is the large opening at the base of the skull where the spinal cord passes through to the brain, and pithing is a standard biology lab procedure in which a needle is inserted into the base of the brain, thus destroying the spinal cord. The “drug free” part was just my being clever with a pharmacy student and has no deeper meaning.

Ever the patient teacher, I emailed him back: “I have no idea what you might be searching for and where, but draw the formaldehyde into the syringe; use a standard gauge needle found in your pharmacy supply store; bend the turtle's head forward so that the foramen magnum is accessible and inject the formaldehyde into the brain. Pithing can be done with a dissecting needle. Some people recommend putting a sick or injured reptile into a freezer.”

Because some zealots are so over the top and absurd about how to treat animals, I added, “Although some animal rights activists decry the use of pithing, freezing, and possibly any kind of euthanasia, I assure you that an injured turtle or any other reptile suffers far less and for a much shorter time from immediate killing in one of these ways than from a slow lingering death.” Though these procedures are not pleasant, such forms of euthanasia seem to me far better than chopping the animal's head off. And euthanasia is better than allowing an animal to suffer.

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