Surgery to remove rope ingested by a green sea turtle

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green sea turtle swallows rope
Green sea turtles aren’t meant to eat rope. Lucky for April, Dr Bree Talbot and her colleagues came to the rescue.

April the juvenile green sea turtle was presented to Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital in April last year by Australian Seabird Rescue. They had found her stranded on the shoreline at Ocean Shores. On Initial presentation, she had a thick braided rope coming from her mouth which had damaged the comminissures of her mouth. 

Apart from the length of rope that had cut the side of her mouth, she was otherwise in good condition. She could still swim and move. 

The turtle was not offered any food once she was rescued for fear that it would exacerbate her condition. At the time, we did not know how much rope was stuck and there was the possibility that it was completely blocking the stomach. If this was to stay in her stomach, it would have been a very slow and possibly a painful drawn-out death—her body would have to continue to digest the rope and this could have resulted in plication of her intestines and possibly necrosis of the organs.

X-rays were taken to ascertain whether there was a fishing hook attached. X-rays did not identify any fishing hooks but there did seem to be a mass of rope sitting within the stomach. A barium study was performed to see how far the rope had travelled through the intestinal tract and if there was any plication. 

The barium study showed that the rope went right to the distal extremity of the stomach and into the proximal duodenum. We initially tried to gently pull the rope to remove it manually. However there was a lot a resistance and we were concerned that it could have been due to the ball of tangled rope or something else that was not visible on radiographs. There was also some evidence that the rope was still moving down the throat. At that time, the main concern was that if we continued to pull on the rope and it was in the intestines, we could plicate the intestines causing further damage to the area.

green sea turtle swallows rope

Therefore the decision was made to anaesthetise April and perform surgery to remove the rope. We had two options for surgery—entry via the supraplastron approach to reach the intracoelomic oesophagus or the axillary region to reach the stomach. The latter has been the preferred method for removal of fishing hooks. We decided against going through the axillary region due to the complex nature of this approach and the fact that no fishing hooks appeared to be present. It’s not often we have had the opportunity to perform marine turtle surgery, and this influenced our decision to take a more conservative approach. April was first sedated with butorphanol 0.2mg/kg IM and then induced with alfaxan 5mg/kg IV via the dorsal sinus vein. Once anaesthetised, an ET tube was placed and IPPV was initiated at 1-6 bpm. 

We decided to attempt the supraplastron approach and were able to retrieve the rope gently and slowly from this incision. Marine turtles have well developed papillae in their oesophagus which helps direct the food, however this can make removing objects difficult and we had to be very careful not to damage these when applying pressure to retrieve the rope. A significant length of rope was successfully removed via this approach and had evidence of having been there for a significant amount of time—it had turned brown/black, was malodorous, and was starting to disintegrate. The area was flushed and then a normal closure technique was applied.  

Once we removed the rope, April did pass a few bits of plastic so it is very likely the rope had pieces of plastic entangled in it and they were causing some irritation and ileus in the intestines. However, this also indicated that the intestines had started working normally again as she was able to pass the plastic.

April was then monitored overnight and sent back to her rehabilitation facility where she received antibiotics (enrofloxacin 5mg/kg IM q24hours for 10 days) and analgesia (meloxicam 0.2mg/kg IM q24hours for 5 days). Her sutures were removed four weeks later, and the wound had healed beautifully. 

While in care post surgery, it was again noted that she had ingested a lot of plastic which she successfully passed without too much intervention. This process was aided by an oil-rich diet, which acted as a natural laxative, and the benefit of the time. 

April was released with much joy and fanfare back into the ocean two months after her admission. To see a video of April’s progress from admission to release, go to: vimeo.com/489144290


Dr Bree Talbot

green sea turtle swallows rope

Dr Bree Talbot joined the Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital team of expert wildlife vets in September 2020 and leads the veterinary team in Australia’s largest Mobile Wildlife Hospital. 

Dr Talbot was appointed to the high-profile position for her demonstrated expertise and experience treating high volumes of wildlife and exotic species with high-quality, expert care. 

She joined Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital from the University of Sydney’s Avian Reptile And Exotic Pet Hospital where she managed medical care of exotic pets and wildlife including koalas, wombats, reptiles and many different bird species. 

She has a keen interest in wildlife medicine and is a Member and Examiner of the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists in unusual pet medicine and surgery.

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