From WAMU 88.5 and American University in Washington, it's "The Animal House," connecting you with everything that concerns the animal world. I'm Sam Litzinger. Later we hear about a new collaboration between Disney and Facebook with an eye on animals and young animal lovers. WAMU news reporter Sabri Ben-Achour tells the story of an elephant with a special talent, and Dr. Gary Weitzman will have answers to questions about pets and wildlife.
First, important advances in medical science were made recently. The participants including ten doctors, their assistants, an anesthesiologist and an ophthalmologist. The patient was a green sea turtle named Holden III. Dr. Greg Lewbart of the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine led the surgical team. He joins us now from Raleigh, North Carolina. Of course, you may remember Dr. Lewbart as visitor to "The Animal House" earlier this year when he talked about his work as a fish surgeon. Greg, I'm onto you. You're finding things that no one thinks can be operated on, and then you're operating on them.
I guess in a way, yeah. Or at least in Holden III's case a sort of different surgical approach to, you know, a problem that's not common, but I wouldn't say it's rare either with sea turtles.
I want to talk more specifically about Holden III. By the way, were you coming out of surgery to do this interview?
I was, yeah. We actually -- I actually had a Loggerhead Turtle that weighs almost 200 pounds, so about 30 times the size of Holden III. Things went well, and I'm just leaving -- sending that turtle home to talk to you.
Now, what was wrong with Holden III?
So Holden III had what's really the most common presenting complaint or problem that we see with sea turtles here in Raleigh, and that would be -- the umbrella description would be human interaction. A number of things, as you can imagine, fall into that category, but the most common is hit by boat. Both the turtle we sent home today, her name is Oceans Eleven, and Holden III are both victims of boat strike.
And so what was actually wrong with Holden III?
Holden III had just some major head trauma. A colleague was reading the CAT scan report last week and he said, you know, Greg, if this was a mammal, it would be dead, and he's right. Sea Turtles are just amazingly sturdy, resilient creatures. She had a fractured flipper and an injury to her shell, but those are relatively superficial wounds, so to speak, compared to her head trauma. She had been hit directly on the head and really, without trying to sugar coat it, her skull was split open. Despite that injury, not only was the turtle alive, you know, she was eating on her own.
So how do you approach a surgery like this?
To sort of use the cliche, it's a whole different animal, but it really is a whole different animal. I can't go to my bookshelf and pull off Green Sea Turtle surgery or anesthesia, or anything close to that. And then...
How would -- I was going to ask, when you're doing this, how important is the role of improvisation? In some ways it's funny, you strike me almost as a jazz musician in the sense that sort of everybody knows where they're going in the band and they can get there, but the role of doing something with something you've never encountered before seems to be essential to your work.
Great analogy. I think it is a lot of improv. But you're applying sound veterinary and medical principles that usually will get you through these things.
And how is Holden III doing?
Holden is going great. She's doing fantastic. The surgical implements, if you will, the sort of creative way we kind of held her skull together is still in place. Now that was something I didn't know if that would last an hour, a month, or six months. Right now we're about a little over two weeks so I'm thrilled to have that time interval. Holden, she's not out of the woods yet. I like her chances, but because of her size, and because of the risk, we thought general anesthesia would pose for her -- and we thought we wanted to minimize the trauma, and whereas in the past we would drill holes into the skull and stabilize it with surgical bone plates just like the plates an orthopedic surgeon would put on a broken human bone, that was our default mechanism, but we were able to get by with a more -- as one of the -- a newspaper around here said a MacGyver-like strategy.
It's just amazing work, and I'm sure there's more to come. Dr. Greg Lewbart is professor of aquatic animal medicine at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Thank you very much for being with us in "The Animal House."
Hey, thanks so much for having me. My pleasure.
What is it about the green turtle that's made it so important to scientists and conservationists, and why is it the most exploited of all marine turtle species? A new book called "The Case of the Green Turtle" may hold the answer to these and other important questions about the endangered sea creature. The book's author, University of Hawaii Professor Alison Rieser joins us now from her home in Newcastle, Maine. Alison, glad to have you with us in "The Animal House."
Pleasure to be here.
You know, I'm thinking part of the problem for the green turtle over the centuries has been that a lot of people just find them delicious.
Oh, that has been the principle concern. The green turtle, you can understand why it became endangered from the name, because the green turtle is not actually green. It's pretty dark brown and it comes in a lot of different shades, and previously its common name was the edible turtle. The word green comes from the fact that its fat is green because the green sea turtle is pretty much a strict vegetarian when they're adults, and because of its vast migrations from one part of the ocean to another, and its life history, green turtles were very abundant and easy to catch when they returned to their nesting beaches.
In the early voyaging era, captains would load up holds of their vessels with green turtles to feed their sailors on the way back to European capitals and to prevent scurvy. And I think that in the Victorian era, green turtle soup became a very favorite item to serve at posh dinners. Even Winston Churchill, for example, was famous for having his nightly bowl of clear green turtle soup. And in America, Cole Porter wrote a popular song in 1938.
Place them, if you will, in the great scheme of things in terms of the ocean's ecosystem. What role do the green turtles play?
Well, sea turtles are of tremendous value for a number of reasons, ecologically and as well as economically, but I think it's a case of we didn't recognize the value of sea turtles until they were almost gone. It's like in the Joni Mitchell song, you don't know what you've got 'til they're gone. But I think that the principle ecological function was to -- for green turtles, is to recycle nutrients back into the marine system.
The appeal to me of the green turtle is it has a fascinating legal history because in the case of the green turtle, the government had to decide a question on whether to put the green sea turtle on the endangered species list, and the government turned to scientists and asked them for their opinion, and they treated it as if it were a scientific question when in fact it was more of an ethical or a moral question about whether we should continue to exploit sea turtles as a food resource or whether we should allow them to recover to their previous abundant levels.
So that same debate is resurfacing today as some sea turtle populations are recovering. It's really -- it's not clear that it's possible to have a sustainable use for such a long-lived, late-maturing species like a sea turtle, and we're learning this in the case of the Orange Roughy and the Chilean Sea Bass, and the Deep Sea Blue Ling, and some other species that unfortunately we are overfishing to a significant degree.
Alison Rieser is professor at the University of Hawaii and author of "The Case of the Green Turtle: An Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon." Thank you very much for being with us in "The Animal House."
It was my pleasure. Thank you.
In a few moments, Dr. Gary Weitzman will join us with answers to your questions about pets. First, let's learn more about our Animal of the Day, the elephant. It's the largest living land animal in the world. There are two distinct species, the African genus and the Asian genus. Both have a lifespan of 50 to 70 years, although there have been some that have lived considerably longer. Do you know the age of the oldest living elephant on record? We'll have the answer just before the end of today's program.
Next week in "The Animal House," a groundbreaking and controversial approach to finding companions for shelter pets in California.
The idea behind the program is to partner with an organization that works with formerly homeless people, and to put some of the dogs that aren't passing behavior evaluation into a home setting where they can get some extra time, attention and training.
The story behind San Francisco's new fostering program, next week in "The Animal House."
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