A Traveling Veterinarian Does What She Can to Answer That Question from Her Sailboat
Story by Sheridan Lathe // @vet.tails_sailing.chuffed
While sailing from Panama to Costa Rica, with the wind behind me, our sails ballooning forward, falling and rising with the swell of the ocean, I heard a gasp beside me. I peered over the rail to see an adult hawksbill turtle pop her head up out of the water, take a deep breath, then not resurface for at least another 20 minutes.
Although I have worked with turtles extensively in my career as a veterinarian, I still love seeing them in the wild where they belong. Like all animals in this world, they are at risk of endangerment, and there is no greater danger to the creatures that inhabitant our world than people.
I have traveled to Australia, Costa Rica, China, Thailand, Rarotonga, and others helping animals. During that time I have worked with everything from a cuddly koala to a 500-kg polar bear, and what has become apparent is that the majority of problems faced by animals are either directly or indirectly caused by humans.
Since living aboard a sailboat, I have been to islands completely uninhabited by people, yet found animals in such places injured by human influence. One such story, which will always inspire me to do more, unfolded when we came across a young hawksbill turtle trapped in a fishing net on a tiny island in Panama. The closest village, with only 30 inhabitants, was over 10 miles away on a completely different island.
From a distance, this little island looked just like they should in a travel magazine: sandy beaches, clear water, and palm trees blending into the jungle. But, rowing closer, we began to see plastic water bottles and a myriad of other trash items lining the shores. A fishing net was hanging in a tree, and we thought we saw something dark in it.
As we got closer, we realized it was a turtle. The fishing line was tightly entangled around her neck and limbs, so she dangled from the tree at low tide, then pulled under the ocean at high tide. She had obviously been stuck here for days, if not weeks, as the injuries were already trying to heal. We cut her free and returned to the boat, where I thankfully had veterinary supplies.
I administered anesthesia and pain relief medication before investigating the extent of her injuries. Upon closer inspection, I realized she was a Hawksbill Turtle, a critically endangered species of marine turtle. She had a broken hind flipper, which had been almost completely strangled by line, and deep cuts around her front flippers and neck. I patched her up with sutures and pinned the broken leg with an extra long, thick needle, all on a moving rolling sailboat. She then began an intensive regime of antibiotics, pain relief, force-feeding, and gentle exercise in shallow water.
The turtle shared our floating home for a total of three weeks before we made it back to Panama City where she went into the trusted hands of a local marine veterinarian. Unfortunately, two weeks later she developed a severe infection and her kidneys began to fail. It was all just too much for her little body, and within days she was euthanized.
I was surprised by how hard her death hit me. I have lost many patients over the years, and, although it is always sad, you learn to compartmentalize those feelings of grief so that you can continue your life and career. However, this little turtle had swum her way into my heart. Knowing her species was critically endangered, and that her injuries were preventable if not for humans, I left feeling very disappointed.
Perhaps you have been waiting for the happy ending and might be thinking my experiences have left me cynical about human nature and the endangerment of animals. However, the exact opposite is true. Not only have I been exposed to some of the worst effects humanity has on animals, but also the greatest. I have met countless people who have dedicated their entire lives to saving just one type of animal from one single cause of endangerment, and the truth is they are making a real difference. It is both the sad encounters and the positive ones that inspire me to keep going, saving animals on a voluntary basis everywhere I travel.
Since beginning this journey two years ago, I have helped over 2,000 individual animals and provided education for local veterinarians and animal lovers, hoping the ripple effect from this can save even more animals from endangerment. Each and every one of us can contribute in small and easy ways that can have a huge impact. If you have a pet, ensure they are completely vaccinated, protecting them and the wildlife around them from disease. Reduce your use of plastic. Recycle more. Volunteer at local animal shelters. Or simply spread the word about other people who have amazing projects protecting animals.
So, in answer to my question: Yes, I think one turtle can change the world. Let her story inspire you to make changes in your life that help prevent animal endangerment. Small things, when done by many people, add up. We are ultimately responsible for the safety of our planet: It’s time to decide to save it as well as the animals that call Earth home.