Visit behind-the-scenes at the Brevard Zoo's Sea Turtle Healing Center

Sep 20, 2018

A sea turtle receives a honey treatment post-surgery at the Brevard Zoo's Sea Turtle Healing Center.
Credit Tania Ortega-Cowan

You’d never know it, just driving along the highway… But just east of noisy Interstate I-95 near Viera – tucked in that lush, green natural Florida-scape – is a sea turtle hospital

The beaches in Brevard County are the largest nesting areas for sea turtles in the United States, and each year, many are found injured and sick.

They find treatment at the Brevard Zoo’s Sea Turtle Healing Center.

GANN: “We here in Brevard County and part of Indian River County have a very strong population of nesting loggerheads. So, with that being said, it is very important that a facility be so close for those turtles to be able to be brought to if they’re injured or sick.”

That’s Shanon Gann, the Zoo’s sea turtle program manager.

Brevard Zoo opened its 2,400-square-foot Sea Turtle Healing Center in April 2014 in partnership with the Sea Turtle Preservation Society. The goal is to heal and release them back into the wild.

It’s not currently open to the public, but they let us visit one recent afternoon.

We’re in a covered, outdoor treatment space. Throughout, there are a dozen cement tanks filled with water – a lot like small but tall above-ground swimming pools with little windows. They range in diameter from 6 to 20 feet.

We disinfectant our shoes and enter the critical care side, where turtles are recovering from recent surgery.  When they are lifted from their tanks for medicine, treatment and food, they usually flap their flippers.

Gann is coaching Taylor Coyle, a recent University of Central Florida graduate who is interning this semester at the center. Assisting them are several volunteers.

GANN: “OK I am going to let you hang on to him. Or her! We are going to take one giant step backwards. OK so this one is Lombardi.”

This turtle came in February 4th - right around the time of Super Bowl – so the volunteers named it after NFL great Vince Lombardi.

GANN: “Lombardi had severe Fibro Papillomatosis and also a horrible fungal infection on the skin.  So, we had to treat the fungal infection first. We use a medication for that orally.

It took a long time – almost two months.

GANN: “Then we were able to go ahead and start FP removal surgery. This turtle had such extensive FP that we had to remove it over 3 different surgeries. The turtle has had it final surgery and we are going to see different levels of healing as we go along, and we have used honey this entire time through the process.

Yes - she is talking about real honey rubbed directly on the healing scabs!  

Turns out, raw honey has an osmotic effect on wounds, and draws moisture out. This makes it hard for bacteria to grow.

GANN: “Or if we have wounds that come in from the wild. So, like a propeller injury or a predator attack… Or something like that. Dirty wounds – it’s a great way to draw out bacteria. Honey has good properties – it has an antibacterial and antifungals so that is why we choose to use it. This is nothing new. It has been done for many, many years.

The honey they use is made by local pollinators and harvested at the Zoo’s Bee exhibit and the Brevard Backyard Beekeepers’ personal hives.

Looking ahead, the Brevard Zoo has teamed up with the Northrop Grumman Corporation and the Universities of Florida and Central Florida, through a $100,000 grant from the Northrop Grumman Foundation.

It’s still in the early stages, but they will collaborate to eventually yield products like turtle nest sensors to record conditions, and unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor offshore behavior.

I’m Tania Ortega-Cowan. 88.9 FM. NPR for the Treasure Coast.