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Much like humans go to the doctor to get physicals, part of the expert care routine at the Aquarium includes annual check-ups from the veterinary team.

“For the same reasons that everyone visits their doctor or dentist, regular exams allow us to find problems before they become serious,” explains Vancouver Aquarium head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena. For an animal like Schoona, weight is particularly important. “Weight measurements allow us to objectively evaluate body condition and adjust diet properly for her age and activity levels.”

Schoona, a green sea turtle normally found in tropical and sub-tropical waters, was rescued near Prince Rupert in 2005. When she arrived at the Aquarium she was hypothermic and barely able to lift her head. After months of rehabilitation, she joined the other residents of the Coral Reef Lagoon exhibit, where she can now be seen by visitors.

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Vet fellow Dr. Barbara Linnehan and Dr. Marty Haulena examine Schoona during her annual physical.

“Some animals are easy to examine closely on a daily basis,” explains Hannah Evans, Aquarium aquarist who specializes in tropical species, “but it’s much harder with some of the bigger animals.”

In order to get Schoona used to human touch and comfortable with being in the smaller space for her physical, Hannah and other aquarists have trained her to swim into a shallow area adjacent to the exhibit for her meals at the sound of a rattle shaken underwater. While she chows down on an assortment of greens, veggies, and seafood, Hannah gently scratches Schoona’s carapace (shell) and touches her neck.

Hannah is Schoona’s primary caregiver, and during the turtle’s annual physical last week, Hannah was in charge of making sure everyone knew their role and that the procedure went smoothly. The day before Schoona’s physical, the whole team gathered to go through a dry run. Sea turtles spend their whole lives in the water, rarely emerging onto land except to lay eggs. In order to examine Schoona thoroughly, the Aquarium team has designed a special plastic basket to remove the turtle from the water. The goal for the procedure was for seamless choreography and calm efficiency.

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The special plastic basket the care team uses to lift Schoona out of the water for her physical.

It’s no small feat to coordinate the movement of a 231-pound reptile, but this is exactly what the veterinary and animal care teams at the Vancouver Aquarium are trained to do. “Everything went according to plan,” says Hannah while feeding Schoona her veggies the next day, “I’m fairly certain she doesn’t even remember yesterday’s excitement.” Dr. Haulena was also pleased, as the vet team was able to do a thorough exam, including blood work and samples. “We are looking for infections, anemia or problems with organ functions. We also do heart rates and, if time allows, complete ultrasound examinations and sometimes radiographs,” explains Dr. Haulena. All of the tests, samples, and measurements become Schoona’s normal values that the vet team can use for comparison over time.

“It would be simple if we could just ask Schoona how she’s feeling,” laughs Hannah, “but given that she never answers us, it can be almost impossible to assess her health on an in-depth, day to day basis.” The tests and full physical exam performed by the vet team are crucial to monitoring Schoona’s health, as over time any deviation from the established baseline could be cause for concern.

“Our team is phenomenal,” says Dr. Haulena, “everyone worked hard to make sure the procedure was as calm and easy as possible for Schoona.”

DocTalks is a new Aquablog series, featuring news and stories from the Vancouver Aquarium’s Animal Health Department.

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