Rehab Wood Turtle



This month I would like to share with you all a small piece of uplifting news. A young male Wood Turtle that was hit by a car last summer, patched up by our vet, and later released with small radio transmitter, survived his first winter since his injury and is in great health. When I first saw him, he was in rough shape, and his condition was complicated further when the person who found him attempted to repair his shell on her own, so this turtle’s story is also a cautionary tale about why wildlife rehabilitation should be left to licensed rehabilitators and veterinarians. 

Before I continue, I need to clarify that I am not a wildlife rehabilitator, but through my research and conservation permit I am authorized to triage injured turtles I encounter and provide some care with instruction from the state and my vet. Anything above my limited skillset and the turtles need to go to our vet or an actual rehabber. If you find an injured turtle, please visit the link at the end of this article to find rehabilitators in your area, or contact a veterinarian or your state wildlife agency if rehabbers do not get back to you in a timely manner. 

Roads are bad news for turtles, especially for species such as Wood Turtles that frequently travel between rivers and uplands, two habitats that are often separated by major roads.

Last August, I got an email alerting me to an injured Wood Turtle someone had picked up not too far from where I live. After reaching out for more information, I hopped in my truck and headed off to get the turtle, assess its condition, and if need be, get him to our vet or a rehabilitator. According to the woman who found him, the turtle was found next to a construction zone, upside down with a huge gash in his shell. He was alive and surprisingly active, but she had tried to close his shell on her own after reading about turtle shell injuries on the internet and worried her attempt had not gone well. It had not.

Repairing turtle shells needs to be left to licensed wildlife rehabilitators and veterinarians. Although she meant well, when the person who saved the turtle from the road tried to repair the shell herself, the turtle’s injury was worsened and would not have healed without additional treatment from our vet.

When I saw the turtle, he had gorilla glue over his wound that had expanded to create a foamy mess. Worse yet, the glue had pushed the fracture farther apart and expanded into the body cavity of the turtle, so off to my vet we went. After some x-rays, localized and general painkillers, and half an hour spent removing glue, my vet and I were able to pull the shell back into place and secure it with a single small wire. The repair was actually one of the cleanest I have seen, so apart from the risk of infection, we were very optimistic about the turtle’s prospects.

Once cleaned and cared for by our vet, the fracture set quite nicely.

Normally, a turtle with such an injury would need to spend months in captivity, but given the turtle’s condition and how well the shell had closed up, we opted instead to care for the turtle in captivity for only a couple weeks, then allow him to finish his recovery in the wild. Given my line of work, radio telemetry provided a unique opportunity to release him much sooner, but also keep tabs on his recovery and respond to any problems as-needed. 

With his fracture set and no signs of complications, the turtle’s brace was painted to match his shell and he was fitted with a small radio transmitter prior to release so I could monitor his recovery in the wild.

Wood Turtles do not fare well when released outside of their home ranges and try to return home if put somewhere else, often crossing many roads in the process. Since he was injured in a construction zone above a whitewater gorge, we found a safe spot with great habitat less than a quarter mile downstream and hoped the spot would be familiar to him. His release was a very powerful moment for me and something I will remember for a long time. He swam into the river a short distance, then circled back, climbed up the riverbank, and sat with me for about 20 minutes to methodically examine his surroundings before heading back to water and vanishing into a deep pool.

Male Wood Turtle released weeks after being hit by a car and cared for by Kiley and our veterinarian.

For the next few weeks, he stayed pretty close to that spot, but then headed upstream about a tenth of a mile to where he would eventually spend the winter in an undercut riverbank. I couldn’t get a visual on him on my last two trips as he was deep inside the bank, so I worried if he was even alive in there. Although he appeared to be in great health and was even spotted eating some snails in the weeks prior, his injury was serious, and the risk of complications weighed on my mind. Thankfully, my worries were only worries. 

After being hit by a car in the summer of 2021 and being treated by our vet, winter was a major hurdle for the turtle to overcome. Thankfully, he was found the following spring and was in excellent health.

Last month I headed back to the turtle’s stream to check up on him and was immediately relieved to find he had moved another tenth of a mile further upstream, and into the valley of a small tributary. Before even seeing him, just knowing he had moved upstream meant he survived the winter. Although this was the closest to the highway I have seen him since his release, he had gained weight and had vegetation and slug slime on his face from a recent meal. Best of all, the fracture on his shell was barely visible, and when I removed the brace that had held his shell together in those first few months, his shell held firm. All indications are that he will thrive, so long as he stays off the road. In a few months, if everything looks good, I’ll will remove the radio transmitter. With any luck, I will never see him again.  

Notes and Resources: While the young woman who found the turtle complicated matters in her attempt to repair his shell herself, she also deserves a huge thanks here. Were it not for her taking the time get this turtle help, it is unlikely he would have survived. Attempting to treat injured wildlife without training and licensing can result in more harm than good. Waiting the extra hours, or even a day to get a turtle into experienced hands usually results in a better outcome. 

To find a wildlife rehabilitator in your area, check out this state-by-state list. They will provide further instruction on what, if anything, to do while arrangements are made to get the turtle into the hands of a licensed professional. If a rehabber does not return your call in a timely manner, you can also contact your state wildlife agency or a veterinarian for guidance.