Every Turtle Counts: Why This Animal’s Return to Sea Is a Big Deal

Rescued in late 2013 suffering from pneumonia and injuries, a juvenile Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is finally ready to go home.
Aug 25, 2015·
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

On Wednesday, a sea turtle named Cougar will slip into the warm ocean water near Cape Canaveral, Florida, after spending 18 months in rehabilitation.

The release of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle will mark the beginning of what those who cared for him hope will be a long life helping to prevent the world’s most endangered sea turtle species from vanishing in the wild.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List estimates that just 1,000 nesting female Kemp's ridley sea turtles are alive today, compared with about 100,000 in the 1940s, as poaching of turtles and eggs, loss of nesting habitat to coastal development, entanglement in fishing gear, and injuries from marine debris take an increasingly deadly toll on the species.

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“When numbers are that low, you have to do pretty much whatever you can to save every individual,” said Jennifer Dittmar, the manager of animal rescue at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which has cared for Cougar since November 2013.

Cougar was one of 88 sea turtles suffering from hypothermia that were rescued by volunteer wildlife patrols from the beaches of Cape Cod and sent to the New England Aquarium that year. He arrived at the National Aquarium, said Dittmar, with pneumonia and a small but infected shell fracture.

The stranding of sea turtles on Cape Cod is a “chronic hypothermia event,” said Tony Lacasse, a spokesperson for the New England Aquarium. Every autumn, as oceans cool along the cape, some sea turtles fail to migrate southward. Their body temperatures fall along with those of the water around them.

By mid-November, the animals become hypothermic and find it difficult to swim or hunt for food, he said, and they often develop complex health problems, including dehydration, pneumonia, other organ problems, and malnutrition.

Around 90 percent of the sea turtles that strand on Cape Cod beaches every year are Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, Lacasse said.

In early 2014, Cougar received antibiotics for infected front shoulder joints. He then needed arthroscopic surgery to clean out the scar tissue from both joints, as well as physical therapy to restore his full range of motion. He has since been repeatedly treated for further shell infections. But in late April of this year, “the last bandage was removed from his shell. Since then his shell has healed up very well,” said Dittmar.

“We were very excited to begin preparing him for release,” she said. “We had to put him through a little bit of a boot camp to be sure he could catch a variety of live foods and move through a stronger current.”

Staff and volunteers have grown attached to Cougar during his lengthy stay in Baltimore, but “he’s maintained a pretty feisty personality through this hold process,” Dittmar said. “Having to handle him and treat his shell—he doesn’t want anything to do with us. It is a very good thing really,” as the goal has always been to return him to the wild, where interactions with humans can be fatal.

“As humans, we cause a lot of damage to these populations of sea turtles,” she added. “It is really inspiring knowing that you’re giving an animal a second chance and the best chance possible.”