x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Vet's novel cure for shell shock

Put a tortoise on a busy road and the chances are good that it will come off second best. That's where Dr Peter Jaworski and his team at the Modern Veterinary Clinic come in.

Ten-year-old Alicia Bouaziz feeds her tortoise Dazo, who had his shell repaired.
Ten-year-old Alicia Bouaziz feeds her tortoise Dazo, who had his shell repaired.

DUBAI // Drivers find it hard enough to keep out of trouble among the charging 4x4s and darting sports cars on the roads of Jumeirah and Umm Suqeim.

So it stands to reason that a slow-moving tortoise caught in the traffic stands very little chance.

Every year a handful of these rare reptiles are found with their shells crushed and shattered after being run over. Normally that would be a death sentence but now vets at a Dubai clinic have developed a pioneering method to save them.

They use orthopaedic screws, pins, wire and boat glue to rebuild the shell and hold the broken pieces together. In most cases the tortoises get over their shell shock and recover sufficiently for the metal to be removed a few months later.

Over the past year, five flattened Greek tortoises have been handed in to the Modern Veterinary Clinic. All were saved using the technique and the long-lived reptiles could now survive for another 100 years or more.

"This is not a standard procedure; you won't read it in surgery books," said Dr Peter Jaworski, who developed the procedure with his colleague, Dr Lukasz Juszkiewicz. "It is our method using our choice of materials.

"It's exactly like completing a jigsaw puzzle. If you still have the pieces you put them all together and join them with orthopaedic screws and wire and polyurethane glue."

Dr Jaworski said the tortoises were all pets that had escaped from gardens or been abandoned.

"All of them were very badly injured by cars," he said. "The shells were cracked and some were in such a poor state that the surgery was a challenge. They were in a very poor condition. Their wounds were contaminated. Some were found some time after being run over.

"One was so badly injured that part of its lower shell was missing, and we didn't know if the operation would be successful because the whole chest was damaged.

"When we put it under a stream of disinfectant liquid there were bubbles coming out of its shell. That means the lungs were damaged and air was going out of his chest. But he recovered very well."

Dr Jaworski said the tortoises were not native to the UAE.

"All of them belong to protected species, and I am 100 per cent sure they were brought from the wild," he said.

Greek tortoises are listed as vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of threatened species.

Dr Jaworski was disturbed to learn recently that critically endangered Egyptian tortoises were also being kept as pets.

"The Egyptian tortoises were a big shock for me because this is an extremely rare species and someone bought two of them in a pet shop in Dubai without documentation," he said. "There are very few individuals left in the wild."

The injured Greek tortoises were given a good home with a family after they recovered. Alicia Bouaziz, 10, who lives in Umm Suqeim, is looking after five of them.

Four have recovered enough to have the pins and screws removed, but the fifth, Daizo, still has some in place. Cracks that have fused back together can be seen on their shells.

"Tortoises are kind of cool, though you can't do much with them," said Alicia. "It's sad that they got run over and it's nice to give them a home."

The tortoises are big eaters, but fortunately for the family a local supermarket supplies unsold fresh produce for free twice a week.

"I was spending a fortune on produce for them," Alicia's mum said. "So now it's a good community story. Everyone is giving of their own resources.

"We have Dr Peter repairing them, me taking them on when they're safe to leave the confines of the vet's, their food provided by the supermarket, and then they're looked after and checked twice a day by Alicia."

The tortoises ate most of the plants in the garden, so now they are confined to an enclosure with walls buried deep to stop them burrowing out.

Given what happened the last time they escaped that is definitely a good thing.