Shi Shi the sea turtle has been euthanized.
The turtle’s care team with the nonprofit SR3 “made the difficult decision … during a surgical procedure” on Monday, said Casey McLean, executive director and veterinary nurse for SR3.
A necropsy was performed, which will provide more information about what prevented a full recovery for the turtle, rescued from near death last November from Shi Shi beach on the Makah Indian reservation.
McLean said over the past couple of weeks when the turtle was not eating or eliminating normally, it was clear something just wasn’t right. Why wasn’t the turtle getting better?
McLean tried a CT scan, donated by the Animal Medical Center in Shoreline. But even that couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Finally the team partnered with the Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine in Bothell, which donated services for a surgical procedure to probe the turtle’s body cavity with a tiny camera. There, the trouble was revealed.
Swollen tissue. Fibrous tissue. Clots. Inflamed tissue. All over. “There wasn’t one thing,” McLean said. “It just all looked bad.” After consultation with vets on the East Coast the decision was made that enough was enough. Instead of waking Shi Shi up from surgery, they let him go.
“If this was someone’s personal pet and they are pushing us to do more, that is one thing,” McLean said. “But this is wildlife, and one of the things we are here for is to reduce suffering.”
The turtle had been pushed off course by storms into Washington’s cold waters, where its body temperature plummeted. Unable to swim or feed, the turtle washed ashore where it was found by a Makah tribal member.
The Seattle Aquarium took the turtle in and worked to bring him back to health. (The turtle’s sex was confirmed during the necropsy.)
With round-the-clock care, the sea turtle rallied and eventually became well enough to be transferred to SR3’s rescue facility in Des Moines.
The turtle looked to be making a strong recovery in a December exam. The turtle just needed to start eating regularly. Then, the next step seemed almost a sure thing: another move to SeaWorld in San Diego, for holding until Shi Shi could be returned to the wild, once the weather warmed.
Cold-stunned turtles have been successfully revived by the aquarium and its partners in the past, most recently, in the case of Tucker the Turtle, rescued, cold stunned, from an Oregon beach in 2015.
Tucker was last tracked in 2017 traveling to Mexico with two female companions, following release from SeaWorld.
But for Shi Shi, it was not to be.
Amy Olsen, a research technician at the aquarium, sat up with the turtle night after night when he first arrived, carefully monitoring his temperature to raise it ever so slowly — opening doors, closing doors, turning the air conditioning off and on, and stroking his head, neck and shell to encourage him to breathe.
The night shift and caring for the turtle were a special time, Olsen said. “With rehabilitation, I try not to get my hopes up too high … we have had many turtles that have not lasted the first night. The fact that (he) seemed to get better, my hopes did start to climb.”
She said she was grateful for the combined efforts of government and nongovernmental workers and volunteers that got the turtle as far as they did.
“We tried the very best that we can.”
McLean said SR3 will keep Shi Shi’s shell for public-education purposes. And much was learned from Shi Shi about cases of cold stunned turtles on the West Coast, which are very different from on the East Coast.
There, because of differences in currents, turtles wash up more quickly and treatment is for an acute condition. Here in the Northwest, cold stunned turtles arrive after a long struggle before washing ashore. Their condition by then is chronic.
Shi Shi was rescued on Nov. 16 and had algae growing on his head, he had been adrift so long. By the time he was euthanized on Monday, even the effort of a team of some 15 people — and Shi Shi, who did grow strong enough to swim, dive, and move — was not enough. He just could not eat.
“Poor little thing.” McLean said. “He fought.”