If you go to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and notice a green sea turtle floating with his rear in the air, don’t worry, he’s not dead.
In 2016, after being hit by a boat propeller in Florida waters, Harbor the turtle was sent to the facility’s Sea Turtle Second Chance Program. The accident damaged his lower shell and paralyzed his back flippers, resulting in a buoyant backend called Bubble Butt Syndrome. The condition makes it hard for a turtle to dive for food or escape from predators.
Despite his injuries, Harbor seems happy in his new home.
“He can’t be released back into the wild, but he has a good life,” says Jen Dancico, an aquarist with the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. “People tell us every day that he’s dead. It’s a good excuse to talk about why sea turtles are here.”
The zoo’s rehabilitation program, which was started by Josianne Romasco in 2007, provides world-class care for sea turtles with the goal of ocean release.
Each year, approximately 15 turtles end up at the PPG Aquarium. Due to illness, injury or environmental threats, many of the creatures miss their Gulf Stream ride to warmer waters, become stranded in cold conditions and wash up on beaches in distress. A network of marine rehab programs across the country gives the reptiles a new lease on life.
Over the years, the PPG Aquarium has housed more than 100 sea turtles, from tiny hatchlings to 500-pound loggerheads. The turtles have numbers painted on their shells and are given names. The monikers have a different theme each year, including Christmas, superheroes, ice cream and local rivers.
Along with the zoo’s veterinary staff, Dancico and her fellow aquarist Justine Curley nurse the turtles back to health with injections, antifungal treatments, medication and a lot of TLC. The cold-stunned turtles experience a decrease in their heart rate and circulation, causing lethargy, pneumonia and other life-threatening issues.
Food doesn’t move through their bodies until they warm up. Once they’ve shaken off the winter chill, they start eating their favorite snacks, including shrimp, clams, scallops and squid (although the aquarists always find pieces of plastic in their intestinal tracts due to ocean pollution). Through an aquarium window, visitors can watch zoo staff feeding the turtles. Behind-the-scenes tours are offered to school groups.
Most turtles spend three to six months in landlocked Pittsburgh before they are tagged and released back into the ocean to continue their nomadic, underwater journey. Clutch, a graduate of the Second Chance Program, charted a course from Florida to North Carolina to Canada.
When a turtle is ready to be set free, Dancico and Curley tag them, put them in tubs and drive down the coast, usually to Florida. Although the turtles lie still for most of the trip, they become more active when they can start to smell the ocean air.
With help from local marine biologists, park rangers and volunteers, a rehabilitated turtle is placed on the beach and makes the slow crawl to the sea.
The scene could warm a cold-blooded heart.
Dancico and Curley hope that one day the zoo could bring program donors on turtle release excursions so they can experience the thrill.
The zoo’s connection to sea turtles is about to get stronger. Officials recently announced that Dr. Jeremy Goodman will succeed longtime director Dr. Barbara Baker as the zoo’s next president and CEO effective Oct. 1. For nine years, Goodman was director of the Turtle Back Zoo in Essex County, New Jersey.
“It’s a reminder that you do have the ability to make an impact no matter how far away from the ocean you are,” Curley says. “A lot of people don’t get to see the ocean. At the aquarium, we are bringing it to them to educate and inspire them to learn and find out about conservation. That really is our purpose.”