Turtle Back Zoo Opens Sea Turtle Hospital

By Erin Delmore

Think of them as the snowbirds of the sea. When temperatures drop, sea turtles head toward warmer weather. But the ones left behind are vulnerable. That’s where the Turtle Back Zoo is lending a hand.

“In the north, near New England, these animals are stranded due to cold water temperatures. They just didn’t get the cues to leave in time and they got stranded in the cold. Being a reptile, their body temperature decreases with the water, and then all their systems start to shut down,” said Jonathan Bergmann, veterinarian at the Turtle Back Zoo and Sea Turtle Recovery.

“So each year there’s between 400 and 600 turtles that cold stun on the East Coast, and there aren’t a lot of facilities like this out there,” said Turtle Back Zoo Director Brint Spencer.

The Turtle Back Zoo is now home to the only long-term sea turtle hospital in New Jersey, one of fewer than 10 in the Northeast. The new Prudential Sea Turtle Recovery Center has five recovery tanks, including an “intensive care unit.”

“It’s absolutely separate from the other turtles so if we ever had a turtle that may have an infectious disease or something that we didn’t want shared water with the other turtles, we would put them in the ICU. This is also a room that doesn’t get any type of public viewing so it’s very calming and relaxing and we’re able to really monitor the turtle in this room,” said Brandi Biehl, co-executive officer at the Sea Turtle Recovery.

“Our goal is to release as many turtles as we can, so we can help out with the overflow of other facilities that are helping them. If they have 100, we can take 20 or 30 off their hands now, so we’re providing a really big service to the stranded community,” Bergmann said.

The Turtle Back Zoo has been expanding under the stewardship of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.

“This zoo is growing by leaps and bounds. You know, we have over 800,000 people and we want to make sure that the people know, these endangered animals, these turtles here, need to be taken care of,” DiVincenzo said.

Most need a few months to recover. For some, it takes a year. The center is treating 11 turtles now, but has room for three or four times as many.

“Sea turtles for most people are a happy reptile. There’s a lot of people that don’t like reptiles, don’t like snakes. But sea turtles are the type of thing that are cute and people really like them. So I think there’s going to be a huge draw just because of what the animals are and it allows us to do the education and to put our education message forward,” Spencer said.

There are four sea turtles that arrived back in December. They were cold-stunned, but the staff here were able to nurse them back to health. They’re due to be released, but since water temperatures in New Jersey are too cold, they’re heading to sunny Florida.