Treating a Galapagos Tortoise for Pneumonia in… Florida

A 600-lb Galapagos tortoise came in for treatment while I was working at a vet hospital in the Florida Keys. (He was a little camera shy.)
A 600-lb Galapagos tortoise came in for treatment while I was working at a vet hospital in the Florida Keys. (He was a little camera shy.)

Reptiles have a special place in my heart, which is a little bit paradoxical considering free-roaming snakes can still make me squirm. But when it comes to medical care with these animals, I dive right in. Their anatomy is unique and their life history ancient making for endless oohs and aahs from a zoologist nerd like myself.

Turtle treatment is a forte of mine having worked extensively with sea turtles as well as sliders, snapping turtles, box turtles, red-footed tortoises, sulcatas (love me a sulcata) and even a turtle on wheels. I hadn’t yet worked with a Galapagos tortoise, even after my animal rescue days in the Amazon of Ecuador. Little did I know I didn’t have to travel to the Galapagos Islands to encounter one; it came to me.

While working at a vet hospital in the Florida Keys under the tutelage of a renowned herpetologist, a Galapagos tortoise arrived for treatment in the back of a U-Haul. He was suffering from a runny nose and inappetence. The tortoise lived at a conservation breeding facility in the middle of Florida. I pictured it in my mind, hundreds of shelled boulders dotting the rural landscape.

Weighing in at an estimated 600 pounds, the tortoise was aptly named HMS, a historic reference to “her majesty’s ship.” The creature couldn’t fit through the hospital door let alone a cage, so this freight-sized animal set up camp in the hospital’s backyard. How do you transport a 600-lb animal from the back of a U-Haul to a fenced in area? You don’t. It was a waiting game. Open the U-Haul door and wait for him to journey out into the sunshine on his own time.

Lab tests suggested the turtle was suffering from pneumonia. The diagnosis proved to be much easier than the treatment. The tortoise had to receive fluids into the body cavity which, for turtles, means they have to be on their side so that you don’t inadvertently poke any organs with the needle. The vet hospital was staffed 15:1 females to males. This often left us women to flip a stubborn, strong 600-lb creature on its side and hold it there for the length of its fluid therapy—typically lasting about 30 minutes. But never underestimate the strength of a woman! Four of us were able to get the job done with the muscles to prove it.

The animal stayed at our clinic for almost two months. I looked back in the record’s intake form one day before he was loaded back into the U-Haul for his return to the mainland. HMS hatched in 1938. He was 76 years old.

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