The Turtle With Bricks for Wheels

The Maryland Zoo is located in Druid Hill Park, a 745-acre expanse that was one of the nation’s first large public parks. And if you want to see some animals, you don’t need to go into the zoo. As a public park, Druid Hill has a lot of wildlife, and you’ll find some indigenous species hanging out in the natural habitat as well. It’s a great place to be if you’re interested in nature and the animal world.

And if you’re an animal in Druid Hill Park, it may be nice to be living close to the zoo, too — especially if you get hurt and are in the need of creativity. Just ask a turtle that recently returned home from a two-year rehab stint at the zoo — and while you’re at it, ask it about its newfound appreciation for toys. Kind of.

In July of 2018, a zoo employee found an injured eastern box turtle living in the non-zoo portions of the park. According to Dr. Ellen Bronson, senior director of animal health, conservation, and research at the zoo (via its website, here), the turtle “had multiple fractures on his plastron, the bottom part of his shell,” which in and of itself wasn’t a big problem — the zoo’s medical team was able to create a cast of sorts, repairing the fracture using “metal bone plates, sewing clasps, and surgical wire.” That trifecta of materials would allow the shell to heal, given enough time. But there was a problem. As Dr. Bronson further noted, “because of the unique placement of the fractures, we faced a difficult challenge with maintaining the turtle’s mobility while allowing him to heal properly.” Basically, the turtle couldn’t both walk and heal at the same time.

The turtle needed a wheelchair, basically. But turtle wheelchairs don’t really exist. Luckily, a veterinary student working at the zoo named Garrett Fraess had a friend, and that friend liked LEGO bricks. As Fraess explained (again from the zoo’s website), “they don’t make turtle-sized wheelchairs. So, we drew some sketches of a customized wheelchair and I sent them to a friend who is a LEGO enthusiast.” What they came up with you can see, below.

The turtle, boringly dubbed “LEGO turtle” (I mean, come on) seemed fine with his new wheels. That September, local news reported that “the turtle is growing accustomed to his new wheels and the design of the wheelchair allows him to exhibit his natural behaviors.” The plan was for the turtle to wheel around at the zoo until such time its undershell healed.

And — it seems to have worked. On July 1st of this year, the Maryland Zoo announced on Twitter that LEGO turtle was released back into the wild, minus the bricks and wheels but with one new accouterment — a wireless tracker, allowing zoo officials “to keep tabs on it in its native habitat,” as the Washington Post reported. You can see a picture of the tracker-wearing, wheelchair-free turtle via either of those links.

Bonus fact: Eastern box turtles are the state reptile of North Carolina. But they’re not the state reptile of Virginia, despite efforts in both 1999 and 2009 to make that happen; the eastern box turtle simply couldn’t get enough votes to earn that distinction. One of the reasons why? At least one Virginia delegate found the creature to be too cowardly. According to NBC 4 Washington, “Delegate Frank Hargrove, of Hanover, asked why Virginia would make an official emblem of an animal that retreats into its shell when frightened and dies by the thousands crawling across roads. If the state needs an official cold-blooded animal, Hargrove suggested the fearsome rattlesnake instead.” 

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