Tourist attractions that exploit animals are sadly on offer the world over. Interacting with crocodiles and lizards, riding elephants and even petting tigers are examples of wildlife tourism excursions that can include abuse and cause untold pain to the animals involved.
Tourists continue to enjoy spending time with wildlife when they visit new places and their almighty dollar can encourage vendors and trainers to offer unethical experiences. It is possible, however, to interact with local animals without causing them harm and instead to contribute positively to their protection and safety.
The Turtle Hospital
The Turtle Hospital in Marathon in the Florida Keys is a full-service animal hospital providing care and medical treatment to sick and injured sea turtles, as well as leading local conservation work.
Their rescue, rehabilitation and release program aims to get turtles back in the ocean where they belong as quickly as possible. However, that isn’t always achievable and they do have a few permanent residents.
My guide, Christine Watt, wears flowery plastic clogs and quirky green turtle earrings as she shows us around the different treatment rooms. She tells us about past and present patients here at the Turtle hospital, which has its own emergency ambulance service.
Most of their patients arrive after suffering an injury related to human interaction. They become entangled in garbage thrown in the ocean or wrapped up in fishing lines or wires.
Many of them sport huge dents and bubbles in their shells, often caused by a collision with a boat. Once air gets trapped inside these malformations it can be very hard for the turtles to swim properly or stay afloat. One ingenious solution is to affix weights to one side of their shell to even out the damage.
Christine tells us that although the hospital does work with The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, most of the time it’s regular people enjoying the Florida Keys that call in about injured animals. “The general public or boaters on the water find the turtles for us,” she says.
Although it may be fairly easy to spot the signs that an animal is in trouble, these behaviors indicate that a turtle might need emergency care:
- Obviously entangled in fishing line, rope, or netting
- Floating on the surface of the water
- Being unable to dive
- A noticeable tumor growth anywhere on the body.
The turtles are often named by donors or those who played a part in their rescue leading to some unusual monikers like the turtle Skywoman who has been left with a raspy sounding breath after a fishing wire cut right through her trachea.
After we view the treatment rooms, we are taken outside to the 23 individual tanks where turtles receive care, are quarantined if needed and then are slowly reintroduced into a larger 100,000-gallon saltwater social pool.
The hospital has a colorful past as a former gentlemen’s club called Fanny’s. The conspicuous motel which stood next door now houses equipment and provides accommodation for visiting veterinarians.
How Can You Help The Turtles?
You can help the sea turtles in a number of ways. Visit the hospital in Marathon, it’s open daily from 9 am to 6 pm, and admission costs $25 for adults, $12 for children aged 4 to 12 years old and is free for kids under 4 years of age.
Your admission includes a 90-minute guided educational tour of the hospital and the sea turtle rehabilitation area. You’ll first listen to a presentation on sea turtles before getting a chance to meet the patients.
You can also donate to fund the hospital’s rescue work or adopt a turtle to provide ongoing and predictable financial resources to the center.
One way we can all help turtles is to be responsible on the water; dispose of fishing tackle and lines appropriately, keep your boat speed down and always take your garbage home with you.