Turtles may not be the Animal Kingdom’s speediest walkers, but for one turtle in the Historic Triangle, just being able to walk again could mark a major triumph.
Bump, a Sulcata tortoise, is just over a year old. At an age when most human infants are taking their first steps, a team of scientists, archaeologists and good samaritans are trying to help Bump take her first steps after losing her legs in a fire in March.
Bump’s owner, local carpenter Thom Rohde, said he and his girlfriend Maria Roco came home from a basketball game and smelled smoke in their West Point home.
“My girlfriend noticed Bump wasn’t looking right. I went over and noticed her bedding was smoldering,” Rohde said.
The fire was caused by a new light bulb that hung over Bump’s cage. The light was the correct wattage, but a focal point on the light caught Bump’s straw bedding on fire. By the time her humans returned home, Bump had substantial burns on all four legs and the bottom of her shell.
“We looked around frantically for animal emergency hospitals,” Rohde said. “The doctor said the prognosis was not good overall. A few tears were shed.”
A month later, Rohde took Bump to veterinarian Sean Sparkman at Noah’s Ark Veterinary Hospital in Norge. By then, the tissue on Bump’s front feet and rear legs were devitalized — or largely dead, said Sparkman.
However, Rohde soon saw progress from Bump, and she even regained some mobility from her front two legs.
“After a couple days she started eating and moving around,” Rohde said. “After a week it was like nothing had happened. We knew we had a little fighter.”
Now, Rohde, Sparkman, a researcher from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and a team of specialists from the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation have joined forces to produce prosthetic legs for the little turtle who could.
Rohde took Bump to Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation’s lab Tuesday morning so the team could create models of what remains of Bump’s legs. Hayden Bassett, Assistant Curator the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, used the Foundation’s 3D scanner to scan a model of Bump.
Those models will soon be given to Dave Stanhope, Field Research Manager with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who will use them to 3D print prosthetics fitted to Bump’s exact dimensions.
Stanhope said he has experience using VIMS’ 3D printer to produce prototypes for marine research, but this is an entirely new use for the machine.
“I’m positive we can make the legs,” Stanhope said. “I don’t know how well they’ll work with the turtle itself. That’s more of my concern… the trick will be building something that doesn’t hinder the turtle’s movement.”
Once the prosthetics are printed, they will be turned over to Sparkman, who will try to attach them to Bump. Sparkman admitted the process could boil down to trial and error, but is confident the prosthetics will work.
“I’m pretty optimistic we’ll have some kind of outcome,” Sparkman said. “The fact of the matter is, she’s doing well as she is.”
He added he hopes the prosthetics will improve Bump’s quality of life, allowing her to walk again, rather than drag her body with her front legs.
“She’s a sweetheart of a tortoise,” Rohde said. “She’s very social. You pet her and she loves it.”
He added, “She has a heart. She has a personality and she’s going to make it through this.”