WHAT DO YOU DO WITH AN INJURED WILD ANIMAL?

by Whit Gibbons


August 31, 2008


In the next couple of months we will see an increase in the number of wild animals crossing roads, and the number dead or injured after being hit by a car. The reason is that many mammals, snakes, and turtles are more active in early fall as they seek end-of-the-year meals or travel to places to spend the winter and are likely to end up as roadkill.

If you see a live, dead, or injured animal on the road, what should you do? For someone who cares about animals, pull over and take a look. You might get to see something you have never seen up close, or you might assist in saving an animal's life. The most likely animal that you would be able to help would be a turtle.

Rescuing a turtle crossing a highway so that it will not be injured or killed by another vehicle is a perfectly acceptable enterprise, and it makes the statement that someone is interested in the welfare of the animal. But first, be fully aware of your own safety and those of other motorists. Managing your vehicle in a way that does not distract or endanger yourself or others is absolutely imperative.

If the turtle is alive and healthy and can be approached safely, note the direction it was traveling as releasing it on the side of the highway in which it was headed is usually the best choice. A common scenario is that neither side of the road is suitable for release. In such instances it is sometimes better to pick the turtle up and release it farther down the highway in a more suitable habitat, remembering of course that most turtles will bite. If the turtle is injured, and you feel inclined to assist in its recovery, additional issues must be considered.

The type of injury and the location where the turtle is found are both important in what to do with an injured turtle. For turtles that have been hit by a car, a triage approach of categorizing the injury as minor, intermediate, or major is probably the best one, especially if any treatment of the turtle's injury would require taking the turtle a long distance from the site. Turtles are tough. A minor injury that is not life threatening would require no treatment, and the turtle can simply be released alongside the road where it is found. A minor injury would include a lacerated leg or a scratched or even slightly cracked or chipped shell, but with no organs being exposed. Turtles have remarkable healing abilities and left to their own devices should recover from such injuries. Even when a turtle loses all or part of a limb, the wound usually heals quickly and the turtle continues to use what is left of the limb in swimming, digging, or walking motions as if it were fully functional.

Injured turtles in the intermediate category are treatable. These are ones that have cracked shells in which the internal tissues may be visible through cracks or gaps where small shell pieces may be missing, but no major damage to internal organs or major blood loss has occurred. Turtles with broken shells that have been repaired have been known to live for many years, sometimes even laying eggs after they recover. A variety of splints can be devised to stabilize the shell, after cleaning the wound. Combinations of fiber tape, duct tape, epoxy, Super Glue, and dental acrylic have all been used successfully to repair minor cracks in turtle shells.

A seriously injured turtle, notably one smashed on a highway but still alive with its insides scattered on the road, creates a more serious problem. Unfortunately, the most rational approach is to leave a badly injured turtle to its fate. No humane way to euthanize a turtle injured on a highway has been agreed upon. People who have experienced such a dilemma are among the strongest advocates against building convenience-only highways that are unnecessary and are in favor of creating proper shoulder barriers and under-the-road passageways to prevent needless road kills of turtles and other wildlife on public road systems both new and old.



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