A zoo employee found the injured turtle in July in Druid Hill Park. It was taken to the zoo’s hospital, where veterinarians found that it had several fractures on the bottom of its shell.
Its injury was somewhat unusual. Zoo officials said that turtles typically have injuries on the top of their shells, so there weren’t any repair kits or much experience in how to help the animal.
The challenge became how to let it move around while allowing the injury to heal.
The zoo’s veterinary team did surgery on the turtle and stabilized its shell. They put in metal bone plates, sewing clasps and used surgical wire to hold together the fragments of shell, the zoo said in a news release.
There aren’t turtle-size wheelchairs, so vets at the zoo tasked Garrett Fraess — a fourth-year veterinary student who is on a clinical rotation at the zoo — to come up with a solution. He drew some sketches of a customized wheelchair and sent them to a friend in Denmark who is a big Lego fan. She designed and built a small wheelchair, customized to fit the turtle.
In a video, veterinarians show how they tweaked the Lego wheelchair and attached it to the turtle.
The wheelchair is unique because it surrounds its shell and sits on four Lego wheels, zoo officials said. With some help from plumber’s putty, the device attaches to the turtle’s upper shell. Black, gray, yellow and red Lego blocks make up the wheelchair.
With the wheelchair strapped on, the turtle can move but still keep the belly of its shell off the ground. It allows its legs to be freed up so it can move, the zoo’s news release said.
The turtle appeared to like its new wheels.
“He never even hesitated,” Fraess said. “He took off and has been doing great.”
Eastern box turtles are a native species in Maryland, and the zoo in Baltimore has a special project at Druid Hill Park, where it has tagged and monitored more than 130 turtles over the past decade.
Tracking the turtles there helps conservationists learn more about how the animals are surviving in an urban setting. This particular turtle was tagged in 2000 and is believed to be 18 years old.
Because turtles have a slower metabolism, they do not heal as fast as birds and mammals, so this turtle is likely to use its Lego wheelchair through the winter and into the spring.
Zoo officials said the turtle is able to use the strength of its front legs and, even with the wheelchair strapped to it, still follows its animal instincts, such as fully withdrawing into its shell if it feels threatened.
Once the turtle recovers, zoo officials said, the plan is to return him to the park.
For now, the turtle is showing signs that he’s recovering.
“He can turn on a dime,” Fraess said. “He can scoot like a normal turtle.” And Fraess said he enjoyed coming up with a unique concept and design that “wasn’t ridiculed for being a zany idea.”