A wild turtle is zipping around on a Lego wheelchair at the Maryland Zoo while he heals from a broken shell. The Eastern box turtle was found by a zoo employee at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore in July. The employee brought him to the zoo's hospital to be treated.
The zoo's veterinary team stabilized the turtle's severely fractured shell using metal bone plates, sewing clasps and surgical wire to hold the shell fragments together. But because the fractures were under the turtle's body — not on the big shell on top — it was challenging for them to come up with a way to keep the shell off the ground so it could heal.
"They don't make turtle-sized wheelchairs. So, we drew some sketches of a customized wheelchair and I sent them to a friend who is a Lego enthusiast," Garrett Fraess, a veterinary extern at the zoo, said in a statement. (A veterinary extern is a fourth-year veterinary student doing a clinical rotation at the zoo as part of training.)
A creative solution
Fraess sent requirements to his Lego expert friend, who lives in Denmark. She sent a design and pieces from her personal collection. They crafted a small Lego frame that surrounds his shell and sits atop four Lego wheels. The device is attached with plumber's putty to the edges of the turtle's upper shell, so that his shell is off the ground and his legs are free so he can move.
Within a few weeks after surgery, the grapefruit-sized turtle was easily getting around on his multicolored wheelchair.
"He never even hesitated," said Fraess. "He took off and has been doing great. Turtles are really good at healing as long as the shell remains stable."
Using his special transportation system, the turtle is able to move around indoors and outside and exhibit natural behaviors, including closing his shell if he feels threatens, according to the zoo.
Here you can watch the turtle in action:
Because turtles heal slowly, the turtle will likely use his Lego wheelchair through the winter and into the spring until his shell fully mends.
The Maryland Zoo has led an Eastern box turtle monitoring project at Druid Hill Park since 1996. So far, 132 wild turtles have been recorded, tagged and released to help track territory ranges and behaviors in this rapidly declining species that's native to Maryland.
"This particular turtle was originally tagged in 2000, making him at least 18 years old," said Dr. Ellen Bronson, senior director of animal health, conservation and research at the zoo. "We are very happy that he is recovering well from his injuries, and we plan to return him to the wild once he is fully healed."