The story of Cutie, our toughest survivor

I have refrained from telling this story until now because I wanted to make sure that it had a happy ending, but now, one month in, Cutie’s looks like she’ll make it through.

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This was the photo I snapped right after draining the water from Cutie’s lungs.

On Thursday, February 4, after thawing out from a big snowstorm the previous week, I decided to go into our courtyard and check on our fish and frog pond, which was installed in the spring of 2013 thanks to the enthusiastic support of our principal, Bill Cirullo, who very recently and unexpectedly passed away.

While scanning the pond bottom, which was covered in leaves and darkening with dusk, I realized that a frog statue that normally kept watch over our pond for the past three years was upside down in the water. It was too heavy to have fallen in by itself, and there was no natural explanation for its position, so I opened the gate to take a closer look. With a glance under the waterfall, which is the only spot that always remains ice free, I noticed a familiar pattern and felt my heart sink. One of our turtles was down there!

Now many people don’t realize that several different types of turtle live in New Jersey, and I will be featuring each of the dozen or so species that live in our area as they emerge from hibernation. All of them are aquatic, except for box turtles, which aren’t the greatest swimmers. At one point, it is probable that their ancestors lived in the water, like the Coahuilan box turtle does today, but other box turtles are adapted to a terrestrial (land living) existence. As a result, seeing an Eastern box turtle at the bottom of our pond was immediate cause for concern.

I grabbed a nearby net and fished her out, thinking that we had surely lost Cutie. She was one of the last turtles to ever be photographed in our courtyard, which has led me to wonder if she has been good at playing “hide and seek” for the past 3 years, if she was dumped by some well-meaning person who found her by the roadside, or if she was a pet that somebody no longer wanted. Of course, I am adamant that nobody bring in any box turtles from the wild into our courtyard, since such an action would be illegal in New Jersey, but I can not keep an eye on the area all of the time!

Once I’d retrieved her, I noticed that her leg was moving, and quickly tilted her head downwards to drain her lungs of fluid. She made a sputter in response. Her eyes were swollen, her body was waterlogged, but she was clearly still alive. I laid her on the ground for a moment and whipped out my phone on order to check what I should do, taking one picture (seen above) just in case this story turned out well.

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The next step was getting her dry, hence the wads of paper towels!

What I learned through a quick Internet search was that I’d already done the right thing by emptying her lungs. But after such trauma, box turtles can be susceptible to pneumonia, and so I knew that I couldn’t just leave her in a comfortable spot and hope she’d make it through the winter. At about the same time, I also noted that a cinder block had been tossed into the pond; one that had originally been half-buried in our courtyard and covered with leaves. That must have been the spot where she had been hibernating, although how it got into the pond remains a mystery. My best guess is that some vandals climbed onto the school roof when the walls were piled high with snow, jumped down into the courtyard, and caused the mischief. Maybe they didn’t realize that a turtle was sleeping inside that cinder block, or perhaps they knew and thought that’s where a turtle should go. Either way, it was absolutely the wrong thing to do, and I’ll have to try and see if we can get security cameras for our courtyard as soon as we possibly can.

Once I’d decided that it was probably best to bring Cutie out of hibernation, I moved her into one of the containers where I’d been keeping hatchlings warm and well fed. In previous years, I’d kept the babies on coconut fiber or “reptile bark,” but had problems with a turtle (named Sugar) that was dehydrated and refused to eat. This winter, I tried keeping them on aquarium gravel, with a pool of shallow water for soaking, kept fresh by a running filter, and all of the babies have done remarkably well. Of course, with an adult female turtle tromping her way about, the babies needed to be relocated.

After the first evening, Cutie’s stiff limbs started moving, although her eyes remained closed. As the days passed, she began to move more, her eyes opened, and she started showing interest whenever I checked on her. For some odd reason, she frequently sat in the soaking pool for the first few days, allowing the filtered water to trickle down on her. Considering what she’d just been through, I would’ve thought she’d avoid water at all costs!

Once she’d warmed for about a week, I dropped some crickets into Cutie’s container, just to see how she’d react. Here is the result:

Since that time, Cutie has continued eating, and I have not noticed any labored breathing, discharge from nose, or other signs of pneumonia. She has munched down crickets, earthworms (supplemented with vitamin and mineral powder), cantaloupe, strawberries, and I’ve tried (without success) to get her to eat some dandelion greens. I’ll work on balancing her diet when spring comes; right now I’m just happy that she appears healthy. She may have been down in that water for several days, or longer, and the cold surely kept her metabolism low enough to limit her need for oxygen, but Cutie nevertheless is a remarkable example of turtle resilience when conditions are right.

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