WOW: Wonders of Wildlife operates the only sea turtle rescue in the Midwest

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife, voted “America’s Best Aquarium” four times by readers of USA Today, doubles as the Midwest’s only sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation center. 

The newest arrivals at WOW found refuge Jan. 2 when a group of 10 cold-stunned loggerheads from the Northwest were rescue-flown to Springfield via Turtles Fly Too, a nonprofit organization. Each creature was named after local towns such as Branson, Joplin, Ozark, Nixa, Ava, Neosho, Lampe, “Leb” for Lebanon and “Queenie” for Springfield. 

The aquarium partners with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to ensure the proper care of stranded and harmed sea turtles. 

Director of WOW Animal Care Mike Daniel says sea turtles have the amazing ability to navigate the world’s oceans utilizing magnetic fields. According to Daniel, ocean reptiles chase warm waters and head north for the summer months.

Things can become tricky as waters cool and the creatures head south for the winter. Some turtles may run into challenges in areas such as Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where the natural land mass has a hook shape, making for a larger and shallow bay – often leaving sea turtles lethargic and confused. 

Sea turtles can go into a state of hypothermia also known as “cold-stunning” or “cold shock.” Daniel told The Heartlander sea reptiles have a body temperature dictated by their surrounding environment. In the cooler months sea turtles’ metabolism slows and they begin to struggle to surface for air or to hunt for live prey.

“It’s just like you and I,” Daniel said. “When something stresses us out or weakens our immune system we can become sick much more easily. These turtles do the same thing. A lot of these turtles we have with us recovering at Wonders of Wildlife have pneumonia. It’s all tied to those abrupt changes in temperature or confusion being trapped in a bay, and then the compounded effects of the stressors. It’s a very challenging thing for turtles.”

This marks the third year for the WOW Sea Turtle Center, which has seen a 100% success rate of recuperation and release back into the wild. Daniel says the facility does not need to obtain a special license to operate a sea turtle rehabilitation center, but must build strong relationships and demonstrate levels of competency to prove itself to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The Sea Turtle Center currently employs special veterinarians and a husbandry staff to ensure the best possible treatment plans.

The turtles are nursed back to health in the center’s 16,000-gallon backstage recovery pool which is off-limits to the general public due to stressors the sick marine animals might be facing. Every turtle is tagged on its shell with a non-toxic paint or a corresponding band around its flipper to serve as identifiers. Before being released back into the wild, turtles are often “pit tagged” with a small tag under the skin similar to your pet’s microchip from the local veterinarian. 

The sea turtles are held in the 30-foot round holding system featuring dividers. Daniel says sick turtles can cohabitate well, but are sometimes better off separated because they can become feisty and will bully each other when the creatures are feeling like themselves again. 

Daniel says his experts gauge a turtle’s preparedness for successfully heading back to the wild by feeding it live natural prey. Otherwise, each turtle is fed top-quality frozen foods at the rehabilitation facility.

“We want to see that they are behaving at a 100% natural state, and that is one of the final pieces in telling us these guys are going to be successful when they go back home to the ocean. They are going to be able to catch a crab and be able to identify and pick up that snail – crunch through it with those powerful jaws. They play such an amazing role in our environment, and are 100% essential to ocean health.”

The center’s two and only resident turtles are green sea turtles named Izzy and Pam who were both hit by boats and sustained severe injuries that keep them from returning to the wild. Izzy recently had a Mother’s Brewery beer named after her – The Izzy Lager. She is now a famous sea turtle across the region and, in usual Johnny Morris fashion, a portion of each purchase goes back to conservation.

“This work is funded through and supported by the Bass Pro and Cabela’s Outdoor Fund. When someone visits a Bass Pro and makes a purchase, often you will hear that associate ask, ‘Would like to round up for Conservation?’ this is where some of those conservation dollars go. This is where your rounding up is making a significant impact in conservation and in animals that are vital to our environment. We appreciate having a resource to help endangered sea turtles.”

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