Myrtle the turtle hit a hurdle.
Or something hit Myrtle. The mystery may be eternal.
Regardless of the reason, the turtle, named Myrtle, needed help. She showed up last month in Kathy Jacobs’ yard near Ocean View with a nasty gash in her shell.
Myrtle seemed to be moving all right, despite her injury, according to Jacobs, who found her in her yard. But there were already maggots in her wound (sorry if you’re eating your breakfast while reading this), which Jacobs recognized as a sign of potential trouble.
“She was at the fence, trying to get out,” Jacobs said. “I’m not sure how she got in.”
Jacobs said her mini schnauzers alerted her to Myrtle’s presence.
“They were acting a little different,” she said. Then, “I heard a noise like leaves rustling,” and that’s when she found the box turtle and quickly realized she was injured.
Thus began Jacobs’ attempt to find someone who could help. She knew Myrtle wouldn’t last long in the wild with that type of wound.
“I called DNREC, and MERR,” Jacobs said, referring to the Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation Institute, which includes marine turtle rescue as part of its mission. Suzanne Thurman at MERR put her in touch with turtle rehabber Cathy Martin, a volunteer who works with the Delaware Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators & Educators.
‘It took several phone calls” to find Martin, who’s based in Dover, Jacobs said. In the meanwhile, she stopped in at Barnhill Preserve near Frankford and although the folks there told her they were not permitted by their license to help her turtle, they told her what to do while she tried to find someone to help.
As instructed, Jacobs used saline spray and Neosporin to help clean out the wound and tamp down any infection, and covered the wound with gauze. Myrtle then hung out in a box, in Jacobs’ gazebo and then at her office.
After she connected with Martin, Jacobs had to figure out how to get Myrtle to Dover to begin her healing journey with Martin. As it worked out, Jacobs was able to transfer the turtle to a volunteer who works in Millsboro, where Jacobs had a medical appointment.
From there, Martin took over. She recommended Jacobs’ turtle-care efforts, saying the maggot removal was crucial.
“We should probably note that, because there are no non-sea-turtle rehabbers in Sussex, they have to come up here,” Martin said.
“Getting it up to us is always somewhat of an issue,” Martin said. “This time of year, we are incredibly busy because we also do mammals. “You know, there are babies that have to be fed at pretty close intervals.”
“Last year, we had a transporter training class,” she said, “and people that thought they might be interested came. We just talked about how to stabilize — not feed, not treat, just keep them calm and stabilize animals of various types” and who to call for further assistance.
So Martin met the transporter, Mary Bond, in Canterbury, south of Dover. At that point, she finished cleaning out the wound and treated the injury with antibiotics.
“With turtles, everything that comes in, we presume is somewhat dehydrated,” she said. “We put them in an inch or so of water — it calms them down and, plus, they can rehydrate.”
“From there, we just keep them inside, away from flies, which are a huge issue, and then provide supportive care,” Martin said. “Luckily, it was not a deep injury, so as soon as it was scabbed over, it was OK to go out. It was very active. It was eating whatever I put in there. They’re omnivores, so they can eat a wide variety,” she said.
Following what Martin said was the first meeting in two and a half years of her volunteer group (thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic), a group member who lives in Greenwood said she would take Myrtle to begin her journey back to Ocean View.
“It was a multi-step process,” Martin said with a laugh. “I always tell people it takes teamwork. If the rescuer did not take the time to pick and make the arrangements to get it to us, the animal is lost. It takes all of us.”
Myrtle’s recovery was relatively quick, Martin said.
“I just returned a turtle that I got last August,” she noted.
In addition to turtles, Martin, a retired DNREC fisheries biologist with a specialization in invasive species, also cares for cottontail rabbits, gray squirrels, possums (those are the “big three, number-wise,” she said) and foxes.
Martin has been a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator since 1988. About seven or eight years ago, she said, she added a shed to her property so that she could properly care for animals — the babies, in particular, who need more protection.
She said last year she cared for around 300 animals — and she was the second busiest rehabber in the state. The top rehabber, she said, had around 800.
Although Martin has a lifelong interest in animals, it was her daughter’s interest in veterinary medicine that prompted the jump into her current vocation. A wildlife biologist at DNREC had a couple fawns that needed care — including feeding several times a day. Since Martin had a large dog pen that wasn’t in use, “I got the two fawns.”
Now, she said, she gets a thousand calls a year from people who find injured or abandoned animals.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, that sounds like so much fun,’ she said. “They see pictures of people on Facebook holding cute animals with a bottle. Well, that’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s the cage cleaning, and the picking up poop, and the running to the vet,” she said.
“Not everybody’s comfortable feeding a possum,” she said. “And people don’t realize, once you have them, you have to feed them multiple times a day, every single day. It’s not like you can say, ‘Well, I’m going to run down to Ocean City for the day,’” she said.
Each volunteer has to be licensed by DNREC, she emphasized. Most towns don’t allow the keeping of the types of animals the rehabbers often see, so rehab volunteers tend to live in more rural areas.
In addition to helping Delaware’s injured turtles, Martin said, the Delaware Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators & Educators are also licensed to take in turtles from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Probably 75 percent of the 35 to 40 turtles Martin takes in each year are from Delaware, she said.
Most, like Myrtle, are box turtles, but she also cares for painted turtles, mud turtles and red-bellied turtles.
Although there are no turtle rehabbers in Sussex County, Martin said there are rehab volunteers who take in other types of animals, and they can often help facilitate the transfer of turtles to one of the upstate rehabbers.
“It’s a small community of rehabbers of all types, so we all try to help each other out when we can,” Martin said.
After about two weeks in Martin’s care, Myrtle was returned to Jacobs, with her wound healing nicely. (There was a hand-off at the state Department of Motor Vehicles building for this trip.)
Since Myrtle’s release, near where she was originally found, Jacobs hasn’t seen her, she said this week. She promised to let us know.
“She was a cool little turtle,” she said.
For more information on rehabilitation of wild animals in Delaware, go to the Delaware Council of Rehabilitators & Educators’ website at www.dewildliferescue.com.