Being a huge reptile with no concept of tradition, she ate them.
Omsin is Thai for “piggy bank” — the name given to the green sea turtle last month by scientists and veterinarians who rescued her at the point of death, shell bulging, infected, barely able to swim for all the fortune she’d swallowed.
Reverence had nearly destroyed Omsin; technology was her only hope.
We don’t know how or when Omsin first came to the pond in Sri Racha, but she would hardly be the first turtle to undergo a ritual that long predates the best of advice of modern wildlife experts.
The tradition of “mercy release” dates back more than a thousand years, according to National Geographic — to a Buddhist leader who told fishermen they’d earn good karma by releasing their catches into artificial ponds. By the late 20th century, the New York Times noted, mercy releases were filling Central Park with shop-bought turtles.
Combine that with another tradition — described in a Fox News report about a pair of Thai turtles in a Chinese zoo, plastered in bills and coins by people who thought the offerings would bring them longevity.
The turtles often get the worst of such traditions, experts say. So last month conservationists brought two dozen turtles from Sri Racha to veterinary scientist Nantarika Chansue — Thailand’s leading turtle rescuer. Chansue had been freeing turtles from filthy ponds for 15 years — ever since a monk asked her to help those dumped around his temple, she once told the Bangkok Post.
Through her rehabilitation center, Chansue’s team had rescued thousands of the animals.
But she’d never seen one like Omsin before.
“I’m not sure how to handle this,” she wrote on Facebook in early February, after setting the turtle in a pool at her university, only to watch it flop in circles and nearly drown.
People raised money for a CT scan, which revealed the problem: an egg-shaped clump, seven inches on the side, glowing silver in the scan.
Or 11 pounds of slimy black coins pressing against the walls of Omsin’s belly.
“It’s torture for animals after they eat the coins people throw into ponds,” Chansue explained to the outlet Khaosod. “Instead of getting merit, you actually commit a sin.”
Now the turtle had the best of Thailand’s knowledge on her side. At Chulalongkorn University, a team fed Omsin nutritional supplements and prepared her for surgery to remove the coins.
But Chansue sounded grim about her chances. Besides coins, Omsin had swallowed a fish hook.
The operation finally came last week. It was harder than expected.
More than half a dozen surgeons and assistants hoisted the 130-pound turtle onto a table, put her under and strapped her down.
They cut a hole into her shell to get to the coins, Khaosod reported, but couldn’t reach them.
“They had to cut into her stomach,” the outlet wrote, “making sure not to tear the delicate lining of the turtle’s abdomen.”
Omsin was under the knife for seven hours.
Slowly, carefully, the vets filled a bucket with coin after coin — Thai coins; foreign coins; coins so corroded that their provenance could not be known.
Total: 915 coins, each one supposed to be a blessing.
Folklore holds that a giant Thai turtle can live 1,000 years, Fox News reported during the zoo incident. That’s a vast overestimate, and Omsin’s coin addiction nearly did her in at an estimated age of 25.
But by the end of the surgery, splayed out on her shell with stitches in the air, Omsin could look forward to many more decades.
If she gets through months of recovery and physical therapy, that is.
If you want to trade coins for karma, Chansue told Khaosod, try a donation box.