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Pittsburgh zoo joins effort to rehabilitate sea turtles

PTRturtles112914
National Park Service
Kemp's Ridley sea turtle.

Something mysterious and potentially deadly is afflicting an endangered sea turtle in New England, and Pittsburgh zoo officials are doing their part to help.

On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium took in 14 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that the New England Aquarium officials and volunteers found beached and suffering from hypothermia in the Cape Cod region.

The New England Aquarium rescues an average of 90 such turtles a year, said aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse. But so far this season, the aquarium has taken in 600 — and workers don’t know why the number spiked.

“This year has been off the charts, (and) we’re only three weeks into a six- to eight-week season,” LaCasse said. “We have a lot of partners up and down the East Coast, so we’re able to deal with it. Everybody has really stepped up to the plate.”

Kemp’s ridley turtles are the most endangered sea turtles in the world, officials said. They summer in the Cape Cod area and migrate south to warmer Gulf Stream water when the weather turns cold.

If they wait too long, however, they can become disoriented, LaCasse said. As the water temperature falls and storms move in, the turtles wash ashore, some dead and others near death, he said.

“When the turtles arrived, we saw conditions ranging from fair to severe,” Dr. Ginger Sturgeon, director of animal care at the Pittsburgh zoo, said in a statement. “We immediately conducted blood work, a physical exam and radiographs to determine each turtle’s level of distress and the appropriate care plan.”

Zoo spokeswoman Tracy Gray said experts would be available to speak to reporters Monday.

Pittsburgh zoo staffers put the turtles into a tepid freshwater tank and evaluated their ability to move and swim as their body temperatures warmed.

“We hydrated all of the sea turtles as soon we could, to prevent pneumonia or kidney disease from developing,” Sturgeon said. “We are also slowly warming them up so their temperature is back to normal at 78 degrees.”

Other ailing turtles went to facilities up and down the East Coast. Sea World Orlando took in 193 turtles for treatment, LaCosse said.

Most of the beached turtles are juveniles, he said. Officials are trying to figure out why so many got trapped in the cold waters this year.

“This is a big deal,” LaCosse said. “There are only 30,000 to 45,000 adults in the entire world. We rescued, rehabbed and released 1,200 turtles in 20 years, and now we’re going to be rescuing 1,000 juveniles this year alone.”

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles died during an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, officials said.

The 14 turtles in Pittsburgh will stay for six to nine months before they are released into Massachusetts water.

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or [email protected].

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