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Jul 12, 2022

A Turtle's Story of Revival After Prairie Burns


Two volunteers at DCHS's Wildlife Center share the story of a Blanding's turtle that was badly burned in a controlled prairie fire, and the turtle's slow road to recovery.

Reptile caretaking volunteers don’t often hear the detailed backstory about each turtle as it is admitted to Dane County Humane Society's (DCHS's) Wildlife Center. Most of the time, they know a turtle was found after being hit by a car or injured by a predator. But it’s the cases with truly unique circumstances of rescue that seem to stand out the most. For example, long-time wildlife volunteers Holly Hill-Putnam and Blair Panhorst recall the case of a particularly special Blanding’s turtle (BLTU) #19-3033 that is currently in care but was admitted in August 2019.

“We got in this female Blanding’s turtle and heard that it was found injured after a controlled prairie burn. There were so many questions: Who found her and how? Was she gravid with eggs when she was brought in? Did she have any deep tissue burns or were the burns confined only to her outer shell? We never could figure out how, even if she was tucked inside her shell, she could have survived a fire that had burned her shell so badly,” they said.

This Blanding’s turtle came to DCHS's Wildlife Center with multiple, grievous injuries, but she was lucky to be found alive. Veterinary notes from the first exam detailed that the tip of her nose and eyelids, front digits #2 to #5 on both sides, and four vertebral scutes (the thickened horny or bony plate on a turtle's shell) were missing, and her eyes were squinted shut with heavy mucus. Burns had exposed so much of her carapace (the top of the shell) that there was a high risk for infection, and the viability of the bone was unclear. The bone was dry and white, soon to slough, and yet there was hope that it could be replaced by new layers over time.

The burn lesions also appeared to be chronic, which matched the finder’s suggestion that this turtle may have experienced more than one prairie fire before she was found. Within her home territory, multiple prescribed burns occur each year.

Top: Blanding's turtle in an overwintering tub during the first year of recovery. Above: The Blanding's turtle in August 2019.

Given this information, the turtle’s prognosis for successful rehabilitation and release was poor to guarded. However, given that it was an adult Blanding’s turtle – which can take 17 to 20 years or more to reach maturity and can live to be over 75 years old – and she is a species of special concern in the state of Wisconsin, staff and veterinarians elected to treat her despite her low odds of survival.

DCHS's Wildlife Center staff and UW-Madison veterinarians provided all of her necessary medical care and treatments, which started off as daily procedures and then extended to weekly check-ups for the last 2 ½ years. Progress was monitored with the help of diagnostics and physical evaluations.

Holly and Blair would “see them taking pictures of her shell,” recalling the process of documenting and measuring new shell growth as the turtle slowly healed. This lovely lady even gained the nickname “Blanche” due to the changes in color of the whiteness of her shell throughout her recovery, despite the Wildlife Center having a rule about not naming patients.

“Watching her recover over such a long period has been thrilling to see. If she was released too early, with her shell being all white, then she might be an easy target for predators, and that just wouldn’t be okay after all she has been through. All involved were rooting for her eventual recovery and release,” they add.

It would take many more months of dedicated rehabilitation from the Wildlife Center team to get her back to full strength.

The Blanding's turtle shell in December 2019.

It took a long time for Blanche to start to feel better, and it wasn’t until she could fully submerge in water to eat and drink that she finally came out of her shell (pun intended). She had an accommodating, calm demeanor which meant that she was easy to care for, even when volunteers had to weigh her or if staff had to perform a medical procedure on her.

Over the years, knowing that she was in a safe place and being cared for, she would eventually swim over for meal times and lift her head out of the water, showing off her long yellow neck and turtle-like smile.

Blair and Holly reminisce, “She LOVES shrimp, and when we would offer her food, she would reach her head down quick and pick up the shrimp. But she didn’t wolf it down; she’d just carry it around in her mouth.”

Shrimp was provided often, knowing that it was her favorite snack. Blanche soon became a volunteer fan-favorite and rightly earned the title of “patient of the month” in May 2022.

The Blanding's turtle shell is measured in October 2020 to determine how much more she's recovered.

As of July, our long-term Blanding’s turtle patient, Blanche, has been cleared for release back into the wild where she belongs.

“We are hoping that very soon she’ll be basking on a log in the warm sunlight, enjoying catching her own food again in the company of others of her species. Just chilling and enjoying the rest of her days,” say our reptile volunteers. “We are so grateful to have been part of her recovery team,” they add.

Everyone looks forward to seeing this through, knowing that so much hard work, effort, and dedication went in to this process.

Blanding turtle on May 27, 2022, sporting a shell that is almost fully healed.

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