The turtle’s tale started two years ago when it was found by a zoo employee in the park and brought to the facility. The turtle had a badly broken shell and underwent surgery that involved placing metal bone plates, sewing clasps and surgical wire to keep its shell held together.
Ellen Bronson, senior director of animal health, conservation and research at the zoo, said the turtle had “multiple fractures” on the bottom part of its shell. Because of where the fractures were located, “we faced a difficult challenge with maintaining the turtle’s mobility while allowing him to heal properly,” Bronson said.
Garrett Fraess, who was a veterinary student and in a clinical rotation at the zoo, said at the time that it was key to “keep the bottom of the shell off the ground so it could heal properly.” The turtle’s injury was unusual because they often don’t get injuries on the top of their shells, so experts had said that there weren’t repair kits to help it.
“They don’t make turtle wheelchairs,” Fraess said, so he and a team sketched a customized wheelchair. He sent the sketches to a friend in Denmark who is a huge Lego fan, and she made a wheelchair for the turtle.
The wheelchair worked because the Lego frame surrounded the turtle’s roughly grapefruit-size shell, and with plumber’s putty it attached to the edges of the upper shell, which got it off the ground and allowed it to move its legs, according to Fraess.
The Lego wheelchair even allowed it to fully close its shell when he felt threatened.
Turtles, experts said, heal much slower than birds and mammals because their metabolism is slower. The turtle used its Lego wheelchair through the winter and spring of 2019 until “all of the fragments were fused together and the shell was almost completely healed,” according to Bronson. Then they took off the wheelchair and the turtle underwent “exercise time” to build up strength in its legs before its release, Bronson said in a statement.
Bronson called the turtle, which is 18 years old, a “unique” patient at the zoo and said it was a “joy” to work with and to see it return to its native habitat.
The zoo has done a project to monitor Eastern box turtles at the park since 1996. They’ve recorded, tagged and released more than 130 wild turtles. The work is used to help conservationists see how the turtles, which are native to Maryland, are doing in an urban setting.