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This Hospital Is Devoted to Saving Sea Turtles

In past years, more than half of the green sea turtles admitted had large tumors caused by a disease scientists have linked to pollution.

Sea Turtles Get Life-Saving Surgery at Florida Hospital

At the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida, veterinarians are currently caring for 42 sea turtles.

"But five are on their way," adds Bette Zirkelbach.

By the next day, she follows up to say the additional five are getting CT scans at a regular hospital—"the human hospital."

The Turtle Hospital is a veterinary and rehabilitation center that has treated and released thousands of sea turtles since first opening its doors in 1986.

The facility treats about 100 turtles every year, but that number can vary greatly. They saw 81 in 2016 and 175 in 2015. Of all those marine turtles, about half had a disease called fibropapilloma, or FP for short.

FP is a herpes-like virus that causes benign tumors. On their own, the tumors aren't lethal, but they can eventually kill by obstructing a turtle's ability to breathe or swim.

Recently, the hospital tested a cutting-edge electrochemotherapy technique to remove the tumors.

Via a technique called electroporation, a vet delivers a local dose of chemotherapy medication. This allows vets to treat only the affected area instead of administering chemotherapy throughout the turtle's body.

A Growing Problem

Finding newer, more effective treatments could help the hospital with what they say is an increasing problem.

"We see more of it and more severe cases," says Zirkelbach. "It's showing up in new places."

Turtles, and particularly green sea turtles for an unknown reason, are quite susceptible to FP. Stressors in their environment like warm water and pollution can worsen the tumors.

(Climate change is also turning 99 percent of Pacific green sea turtles in one rookery female. Read how.)

A 2014 study published in the journal PeerJ found that urban and agricultural runoff was exacerbating cases of FP in Hawaii. A similar study in 2010 found that nitrogen-rich waters also made FP worse.

Green sea turtles, like nearly all species of sea turtle, are endangered.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, harvesting of their eggs remains one of their biggest threats, but adults are also threatened by bycatch, pollution, and disease.

A Host of Injuries

At the Turtle Hospital, Zirkelbach says they've treated five different species of threatened sea turtles.

In addition to FP, the animals regularly come in with other injuries. Some of the reptiles are struck by boats and others become entangled in plastic, which in severe cases causes loss of limbs.

Some rescues aren't always successful, Zirkelbach notes.

Animals that have dire injuries or internal tumors are humanely euthanized.

To find injured reptiles, the Turtle Hospital relies on the local community to call in animals in distress.

Zirkelbach says they have a robust public outreach program to educate members of the community on what a sick sea turtle looks like. The hospital also has a large social media presence, where they post photos and success stories.

"They've been on our planet for 200 million years," she says, referencing discoveries dating turtle fossils back 215 million years. "We don't want them to go extinct on our watch."

Correction: A previous version of this article stated the hospital was in Key West.