Planet Earth

All Creatures Great and Odd

All Creatures Great and Odd

By Mark WheelerDec 1, 1997 6:00 AM


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It’s 7:30 a.m. and already the odd pet vet has broken a sweat over a turtle. Greg Mertz, forgoing the conventional white smock for a baseball cap, blue T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes, is wrestling with Regal Nefertiti, a hand-size, three-toed interbred Gulf coast box turtle that has beaten a slow retreat deep within its shell. Nefertiti is anemic, suffers from stomatitis, an inflammation of the mouth, and is fat to boot, although I’m wondering how her owner knows. (Fat head? Fat feet? After all, everything else still seems to be fitting tidily inside the shell.) I’ve got her on a protein-restricted diet, the owner tells me. Weight problems aside, Mertz says that Regal Nefertiti, like most reptiles, is probably laced with protozoa and bacteria as well. As a preventive, then, he’s ground up a couple of metronidazole, an antibiotic, and sucked it into a metal syringe.

Then what I do is gently tap them on the head with the syringe to trick them, he says, using Nefertiti to gesture with as he talks. That usually annoys them enough so that they try to bite it; then I can get the syringe in their mouths.

Sometimes they bite Mertz instead, which can hurt--although turtles are toothless, they have sharp beaks like birds. Most times, out of fear or, no doubt, in retaliation, their bowels loosen as well (hey, you’d poop too if what looked like the Jolly Green Giant was using you to gesture with). Poop per se can be an okay thing, since stool samples are a useful diagnostic tool, but Mertz is grateful when it doesn’t land on his lap.

Some 20 minutes later, once he’s finished with Nefertiti and her nonbiological sister, Marmalade (who Mertz suspects is also anemic; he’s taken a blood sample from her tail), the pair are returned to their cat carriers, and their owner, reassured, departs. Before his next client arrives, Mertz warns me that his schedule this Saturday morning is turtle heavy. Not that Mertz, who sublets an examining room from another veterinarian in Dedham, Massachusetts, a small town some 20 minutes southwest of Boston, planned it that way. This atypical vet specializes in atypical pets, and while the array of animals he might see on any given Saturday leans heavily toward Reptilia, his patients might be pythons or king snakes, iguanas or blue-tongued skinks, with the occasional arachnid or rabbit thrown in just for diversion’s snake. Uh, sake.

Mertz’s peculiar practice evolved out of an early fascination with reptiles, as well as boredom with conventional veterinary practice (The thought of having to deworm cats for the rest of my life . . . he mutters to me at one point) and was an outgrowth of his full-time day job as director of the New England Wildlife Center in the nearby town of Hingham. The nonprofit center is designed as a research and educational organization and a hospital for any sick or injured wild animal people might bring in. The center accepts any wild animal, from injured crows to pied-billed grebes, groundhogs, deer, barn owls, gulls, coyotes, arctic foxes--anything native (or, in the case of the arctic fox and coyote, not native) to the waters and woods of New England.

Most of Mertz’s week is filled by hustling donations and applying for grants to sustain the on-a-shoestring center, speaking to children at local schools, treating the injured wild animals with his three full-time staff members, training interns from various universities who are interested in wildlife medicine, and teaching the occasional class at nearby Tufts University. But he found that people were increasingly turning up at the center’s doorstep with, as one local paper put it, a kind of Addams family of pets--geckos, iguanas, snakes, rodents, and insects--as well as the more traditional turtles, which were being underserved by the conventional, deworming vets, who simply don’t see enough of these kinds of oddball pets to treat them effectively. The medical problems are usually quite simple, says Mertz, but the basic husbandry, especially for reptiles, can get complicated, which is not news for any scarred adult who, as an innocent child, watched his stupid aquarium turn a slimy green along with his favorite pet turtle Bob, just because he dumped a pound or so of turtle food into the water every day.

So to fill this veterinary niche, Mertz holds office hours two evenings a week, and on Saturdays for as long as needed; he could probably expand the practice if he could find the time. With some 7.5 million reptiles owned as pets in the United States in 1996, clearly their doctoring is a growth industry. Mertz, a man with a sense of humor, named his practice the Odd Pet Vet, and he keeps three polished turtle shells, empty, on top of a file cabinet (Three of my patients that didn’t make it, he had deadpanned that morning on my arrival). As part of his efforts to educate his clientele about their pets, he will also occasionally hold classes at his own College of Odd Knowledge.

Just now, though, Mertz is fighting a losing battle with another patient, a leopard turtle named Otis that has a calcium deficiency, which means its shell is soft. Otis, however, quickly proves there’s nothing wrong with the way he functions. Mertz wants to do the old rap-’em-on-the- head-with-the-syringe trick, but Otis has disappeared into his shell, pulling his front limbs in so you can’t even see his face, let alone bop it.

Unlike Regal Nefertiti, Otis is a big turtle, roughly the size of a baseball glove. So Mertz, cap now on backwards and tongue stuck between his teeth in concentration, is balancing Otis vertically in his lap. Holding the syringe between the forefinger and middle finger of one hand, he struggles, using both thumbs, to pry the turtle’s front limbs out of its shell. I comment on my surprise that these turtles are so powerful. Mertz pauses to wipe his brow. Turtles are incredibly strong for their size, he acknowledges. In fact, sometimes I can’t get them open at all. I had one turtle a while back that was so strong, I finally had the owner drive me around the block in her car while I held the turtle in my lap. It was smart enough to realize it was out of the office, but not smart enough to realize it was sitting in my lap. When it came out of its shell, I nailed it with the syringe, he says with satisfaction.

Mertz finally succeeds in pulling back Otis’s limbs to see the head. With admirable strength and a fair amount of coordination, he holds the limbs apart with one hand and then, using the syringe, gently raps at the now-hissing turtle. Otis bites, Mertz plunges, and most of the antibiotic goes down the turtle’s gullet, although some dribbles across his head and shell. Satisfied, Mertz carefully spins around on his stool and unceremoniously dips Otis under a faucet, rinses his head and shell, then dries him off with a paper towel. With a sigh and a roll of the eyes, he wipes the fresh stool sample off his shorts.

And so it goes. Mertz’s syringe struggles will continue on this day with every turtle or tortoise he treats. There were several box turtles, the leopard turtle, a red-eared slider turtle, a painted turtle-- there were a lot of turtles. There are somewhere between 200 and 250 species of the order Chelonia, but when you’ve seen one turtle, it’s easy to think you’ve seen them all, unless you look closely. Then the animals can be quite attractive, each with its own distinctive pattern on the upper shell, called the carapace, and the lower, the plastron. A turtle’s shell also shows growth rings, similar to those of trees, but Mertz points out that there may be one to three rings for every year of growth.

Although turtle shells come in varying sizes--a snapping turtle’s shell protects only its back, for example--for most species, retreating into the shell is a sound evolutionary strategy that’s been working unchanged and successfully for a whopping 200 million years. Turtles, it seems, have become one with their shells. Literally. Their backbones and ribs are fused with plates of bone to form the shell. Overlying the bone are protective scaly layers of keratin, the same protein that makes up our fingernails and hair. The plastron is hinged, so that when the turtle withdraws, the shell is clamped tighter than, oh, a clam. For even portly turtles like Regal Nefertiti to fit into their shells, the pelvic and pectoral girdles of all turtles--their hip and shoulder sockets--rest partly inside their rib cage, unlike those of most vertebrates, including, of course, humans, whose form-flattering girdles lie outside their ribs.

With careful observation you can begin to discern turtle personalities. Some just sit quietly, like (yawn) turtles, suffering whatever medical indignity Mertz requires. Others are in full scamper from the moment their owners take them out of their cat carriers or cardboard boxes, all four limbs moving continuously, even when lifted midair. Still others are ill-tempered beasts, craning their scaly little necks in an effort to get their beaks around Mertz’s fingers.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like turtles. But after the morning’s parade, I wanted to see more of the oddball pets Mertz has cured, cuddly little animals like, for instance, the congo eel. It’s a salamander that has legs so tiny most people think it’s an eel or a snake. Mertz recognized it immediately, though, since it arrived floating belly-up in his office, tiny legs swaying. He was able to save it by injecting two antibiotics.

Mertz also once treated a spider (specifically, a tarantula) that lost a leg when a book toppled on it. He used superglue (a tissue-sensitive superglue used for suturing) to reattach the forlorn appendage. Mertz’s creative handiwork was successful for only a short while--a pity, since tarantulas, which can live as long as 30 years, don’t catch their insect prey in webs but chase them down. And I was particularly disappointed that I didn’t get to meet the guy who keeps a daddy longlegs as a pet (which suddenly puts turtles in a more exciting light). This arachnid was beset by mites, tiny, parasitic spiders themselves--which, when you think about it, says Mertz, raised an interesting ethical question about killing one arachnid species to save another.

Finally, as the morning progresses and Mertz struggles to open the forelimbs of his umpteenth turtle, I can’t help musing out loud as to why, unless you’re a little kid, you’d want to own a turtle as a pet. Sure, they’ve got that cool, prehistoric look about them, but they don’t catch mice or fetch, they don’t respond when you call them, and they just strike me as being a bit, well, dull.

Mertz pauses to rest his thumbs. Clearly the diplomat, he begs off answering the question, suggesting I ask one of his clients. Mertz loves his clients. He calls them characters and admires them for their total devotion to their animals. That morning he had called one group of turtle owners--to their faces--his crazy turtle ladies. The women, unperturbed, had bantered back in an easygoing, friendly manner.

Still, I’m a little hesitant to ask one of the characters why she loves turtles so much. That kind of question would be heresy to these pet owners, since they are serious about turtles. Take Patty, for example, who brought in her turtle Melody, which suffered a prolapse. In reptiles, prolapses are usually the falling outside of the body of some internal part. Melody’s prolapse hadn’t occurred naturally but was caused by excessive mating. Mertz had been unable to identify the exact body part that was now external and had finally amputated it. While Melody seemed fine, during the examination it turned out, under Mertz’s teasing banter, that Patty owned not one or two turtles but 20. Her friend the frog lover fessed up to owning 31 frogs (croak). Thirty-one frogs? Twenty turtles? Do these people live in a pond?

Actually, both women live in apartments, which both admit they’ve largely given over to various cages and innumerable pie tins (for water). Their whole lives, not to mention their homes, become devoted to their animals, says Mertz. That’s one reason he subscribes to a strategy of herd health in dealing with these animals, because you can bet you can’t treat just one. Virtually all my clients own more than one animal, and infection will just run through them. That’s why he is so persistent in administering antibiotics.

It’s also the reason he established his College of Odd Knowledge, which he holds periodically on various evenings in the lobby of the vet office. The majority of my clients want to know more, not just about their particular animal, but about animal physiology and nature in general. His one-page catalog describes such courses as the staid Advanced Reptile Husbandry and Management (includes microscopic examination of feces and urine), the more entertaining Frogs! Frogs! Frogs! (What makes frog skin so tough? Why do they swallow with their eyeballs?), and Guts (a request of Mertz’s clients). The courses last one night and run about $35 but, Mertz is quick to add, always include free pizza.

With Melody’s departure comes Slick, who, I’m pleased to see, is not a turtle. At 15 pounds and seven feet in length, Slick is a handsome yellow and white Burmese python that is slowly winding its way around its owners, a mother and two preteen children. I’m excited about this patient because I know that Mertz had to perform surgery recently on a python. The animal had eaten a pair of undershorts that had been discarded on the floor, which Mertz then had to remove. (The indigestible shorts were fine when I pulled them out, says Mertz. A little slimy, but fine.) Apparently, in striking at a mouse that was sitting on the shorts, the hungry python had grabbed mouse and boxers, swallowing both.

Turns out, though, I have the wrong snake. Slick is a first-time patient and is suffering from a respiratory infection (the underwear swallower was due in later that morning, but alas, its owner called to cancel the appointment). Slick is lethargic, he drools, and he gurgles when he inhales. The owners also tell Mertz he hasn’t eaten in several weeks. Normally, they claim, Slick eats three rabbits (ugh) every three to four weeks, which must be a pleasant sight to observe, especially if you’re rabbit number 3. (Later, Mertz tells me that amount of food sounds high to him. Normally pythons the size of Slick eat a rat-size animal every 10 to 14 days. And, Bugs Bunny fans please note, usually the prey is already deceased.)

Slick is also a little cranky, and he’s not pleased when Mertz uses a pair of blunt-edged scissors to force his mouth open. Mertz is checking to see if the blood vessels lining the mouth are swollen, another sign of infection or allergies. Next he injects the obligatory antibiotic into a muscle near the snake’s backbone. I wasn’t too concerned about the snake’s state of mind, however; pythons kill, of course, by constriction, and I knew that, with five of us in the room, there was no danger of suffocation. Then Mertz reminded me that pythons have something like 120 teeth that they use to snag their prey, be it mouse, rabbit, or bvds.

Mertz wants Slick to return midweek for another shot but is told the family is leaving for vacation. Slick is going with them. Mertz then teaches the son how to give the injection. The boy makes the injection smoothly, but Slick begins writhing. Uh oh, now he’s pissed, says Mertz, quickly suggesting they cover the snake’s head with a pillowcase. That was a vitamin B shot; I didn’t tell you they sting, he says to the boy. I didn’t want to make you nervous.

The day continues, one patient after another. There is Mamacita, a California king snake that suffered a prolapse, this one self-induced, of an ovary. In female snakes, the intestinal, genital, and urinary tracts all terminate in the vent, or cloaca, a small slit at the snake’s posterior. All that squeezing, Mertz suggests, may have something to do with their occasionally squeezing out something they didn’t intend. Later he sees Sweetie, a blue-tongued skink with hookworms.

The final patient of the day is a two-foot-long iguana who has stopped eating, is constipated, and is breathing heavily, all signs that it is suffering from metabolic bone disease. This is a common problem Mertz sees with lizards and is caused by an imbalance of calcium and phosphorous and a lack of ultraviolet light--sunlight. Lizards bask in sunlight in order to convert vitamin D to D3, which, in turn, instructs the lizard’s digestive system to extract calcium from its diet. A lack of calcium can lead to soft bones, swollen limbs, even heart failure.

The iguana is not suffering enough, however, to stop it from climbing. Most iguanas are arboreal creatures, notes Mertz, and this one is probably seeking high ground for security. High ground in this case is the top of its young owner’s head, much to her embarrassment, and pain, as Mertz has to struggle three separate times to extract the animal from her hair. The bone disease can be treated by giving the iguana the missing vitamins, which its owner will have to administer by syringe over the next three months. Mertz demonstrates by holding the iguana carefully, then gently tugging on its dewlap, the loose fold of skin under its chin, which causes the animal to open its mouth in protest and to dig its claws into Mertz’s skin.

Finally, around three in the afternoon, a tired Mertz is done. He’d been nipped, scratched, and pooped on, and thus, all in all, it was a normal day. As we chat, I ask if reptiles are more susceptible to disease than other animals. Not necessarily, he replies, but people who are new to reptiles may lack the same empathy they would have toward a more conventional pet, like a cat or dog. You may not notice right away if your iguana stops eating, but you’d know right away if your dog stopped eating. And, he notes, people are simply slower in recognizing the signs that a reptile or daddy longlegs may not be feeling well.

With the rise in oddball pets, clearly more odd-pet specialists like Mertz will be needed. After all, who else would bother to treat a dehydrated, fallen bumblebee (Mertz gave it sugar water), then tolerate its owner for four hours until the bee, revived, up and flew away? And where else but to Mertz would the horrified Dedham woman, the one who accidentally washed her son’s pet frog in the washing machine (bleach plus soap) have rushed? The animal, eyes rolling about and with a severe head tilt, was alive but in shock. Mertz gave it steroids and the animal survived, much to the gratitude of the woman and, no doubt, the frog, who, though permanently gazing to the left, croaks to this day.

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