Box Turtle Observation Project - Naraht


Naraht came to me in the fall of 1995. He was brought in by some schoolchildren at Harmar Elementary School in Marietta. His shell was badly cracked, and maggots had infested his wounds. Still, he was alert and lively, and I was determined to fix him up. I'm still not sure if he had run afoul of a car, or if he had run into a group of very nasty children with nothing better to do than to torture a creature at least 3 times older than any of them.

The principle damage was in the form of two splits in the shell. One was near the front of the shell on the left side and the other one row of scutes further back along his right side. The wedge of shell to the front, between these two cracks, had splayed out, flattening the shell. My first reaction was to carefully clean the wound with antiseptics and to pick out the maggots. I then gently manipulated the shell pieces back into their original position. This obviously caused great pain, but Naraht displayed the gentleness that I have always seen in box turtles - he never once attempted to bite me even as I was inflicting this additional pain. Unfortunately, his shell would not stay in its correct posture. I waited several days to be sure the wound was free of infection, then I carefully drilled two small holes through the overhang of the shell to either side of the break at the front of his shell. I had originally used 30 gauge wire, which is very fine, but it was not strong enough to hold the shell together, and I had to replace it with some thicker copper wire. The wire was twisted together and held the shell in its original shape. As an added bonus, the wire also brought the shell into position at the other crack as well.

During this process Naraht was living in a 20-gallon aquarium. It was bare except for a small water bowl (too small to soak in) and a jar of water with an aquarium heater in it. Contrary to the advice you see elsewhere in my web pages, Naraht was kept quite warm - at least 27 degrees C - to keep his metabolism up. This was to promote healing and help him fight infection. Although the wound to the front began to heal nicely, the split to the side was much deeper, and, despite the initial superficial treatments, it became infected. Naraht fought the infection through September, October, and November; by December 1995 he seemed to have beaten it. His care during this time was quite time-consuming. Twice a day I bathed him with antibacterial soap, and irrigated the wounds with various antiseptic solutions. He was also allowed to soak in a clean container for 1/2 hour per day. The treatment that finally seemed to lick the infection was the twice-a-day cleansing along with a 2-3 hour soak in a smaller aquarium with warm water into which a capful of bleach and a teaspoon of Binox tropical fish remedy had been placed. His second wash of the day was followed by application of Betadiene antiseptic, which forms a coating that remained on overnight. This regimen - along with time - seemed to remove the infection. I diagnosed the infection, by the way, by sniffing the area of the wound - a bacterial infection has a distinctive odor.

During this treatment, the bone along the right-side split had begun to knit, but then a series of minor catastrophes intervened. Naraht is one of those few talented box turtles who is also an avid climber. He has managed to work himself out of a series of taller and taller plastic tubs and buckets that I used for soaking him. He is big enough that I would guess that he could even climb out of his 20-gallon aquarium if it didn't have a lid. I no longer place him in any container unless it has a lid. Unfortunately, the first time he fell out of a plastic tub (into a sink, a distance of 5-6 inches) he re-fractured the split along the right side. His climbing and falling antics continued for several weeks and prevented the bone from knitting again. This also leaves him vulnerable to further infection. Because the split is at the side, right where the plastron meets the carapace, I cannot drill into the margins of the shell and repeat the wire trick. At Christmas, I finally decided to glue small metal pieces to either side of the split and I then tied these together with wire. After the wire had pulled the wound closed, I glued another small metal piece into place over the ventral (bottom) portion of the crack. This bottom piece has no tension on it, but serves to protect the lower part of the injury, keep the shell from hanging up there, and keep the shell from rotating around the site where the shell sections are held together with wire. It worked well.

Over Thanksgiving and Christmas break Naraht presented a unique problem. He needed daily care, and there was no one to give it to him at school. He had to migrate home with me, and the veterinary care of a rambunctious box turtle is much easier in a laboratory/office than it is in a small house. I am reminded once again how noisy a turtle can be at 5 am and how nice it is to have them in one's office, where once isn't normally trying to sleep at 5 am. I also vow that when I build or remodel a house all the bathrooms will have those ugly but very useful deep, rectangular black sinks. At least by Christmas, Naraht's infection was under control enough that he was getting scrubbed (with a toothbrush) every other day with antibacterial soap. He spent Christmas morning under the tree while we opened presents. He needed to get more light; unfortunately at our house the only place we could keep him warm was the bathroom (near a floor vent). It was far too cold near any of the windows. Since he was not getting much light he was not eating very well, and I hoped that a little light therapy would get him back on his feed. His appetite returned when he got more light, and  he has began eating voraciously, especially liking bananas and chicken dog food. He ate his food sprinkled with calcium supplement to promote bone growth.

About his name. Naraht is the name of a character created (I think) by Diane Duane and first seen in the book "My Enemy, My Ally". This is number 18 of the Star Trek novels put out by Pocket books. For those of you not familiar with Ms. Duane's works, she populates her stories with an assortment of aliens that go far beyond what the budgets or imaginations at Paramount would ever support. Her starship Enterprise is a much more raucous, diverse bunch of creatures than what you'll ever see on the big screen. Naraht is her creation, but she did not come up with the species. A costume expert, Janos Prohaska, had created a costume of a "monster" which he used in an episode of "Outer Limits". A Star Trek writer, Gene L. Coon, saw the costume and wrote a story, "The Devil in the Dark" to feature it. The creature was known as a Horta, and it was native to Janus VI. It was killing off some miners who, in turn, were destroying silica nodules they encountered in their mining. It turns out the Horta was the only surviving adult of her species, and the 30,000 eggs were under her care. Kirk and Spock figure all this out, and make peace between the miners and the Horta (which begin hatching out). The Hortas dig tunnels that take the miners to the ore they seek. Biology students, take note - this is a sort of symbiotic relationship known as a commensalism. The miners get the ore they want, the Hortas get nothing in the deal - but they're not hurt in the process either. Anyway, fans of the TV show will remember Bones caring for the injured mother Horta with cement and a trowel, and recall his famous line "---expletive deleted--- Jim, I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer." In Duane's world, Naraht is an ensign in Starfleet, having completed the academy. He is assigned to the Enterprise where he is an eager, if somewhat clumsy member of the crew. The box turtle received his name because during his treatment he resembled the fictional mother Horta.


Naraht's recovery was aided by several people who have responded in various ways to my requests for help. Scott Moody and students Brent Palmer and Sue Simon at Ohio University had some good suggestions. Dr. Nancy Anderson, DVM, at Ohio State University (I can't bring myself to type THE Ohio State University when there are so many other fine state universities here) also had some good ideas, especially when it comes to the "patching process", i.e. cover, don't fill the damaged area. Dr. Martin Chambers DDS, of Lakewood, Ohio, does a great job with teeth and was also kind enough to offer some dental adhesives and fillers and advice on their use. My wife, chief librarian of the Anti-gravity Laboratory's complete Star Trek section made researching Naraht's heritage very simple (we considered calling him Horta, but the pronunciation has some unpleasant connotations in English). And, of course, to the good students at Harmar School who rescued Naraht and brought him by. Finally, their teacher, who deserves a lot of credit for periodically spiriting the kids out of school so they can check up on him. I guess what I'm saying is that it takes a lot of people a lot of time and effort to make up for one person's cruelty.

Update - August, 1996.  Naraht has the worst luck of any of the turtles.  Late in the spring, he was being shown to a group of schoolchildren.  The instructor was not aware of his climbing agility, and, while attention was elsewhere, Naraht bolted from a container and fell several feet to the floor.  This possibly cracked some of the new bone growth, although there was no evident damage.  When the other turtles were moved north for the summer, Naraht was moved to their enclosure on the floor of my office, getting him out of the aquarium.  He was easily able to escape from this enclosure, a feat that had eluded 6 other turtles over a 2-year period.  When he was moved outside in late June, he initially did well.  He and Linus faced off a few times before reaching some sort of understanding.  Both would intimidate Karl, but it was difficult to predict an encounter between Linus and Naraht.  One night, a raccoon raided the patio.  All of the turtles were turned over, and Naraht was bitten severely on the neck.  The raccoon was chased away, a trap was set, and Linda and Naraht were returned indoors.  The neck wound has since healed.  

Update - February, 1997.  Naraht , Karl, and Linus got pneumonia late in the fall.  I thought that the two newcomers, Eric and his unnamed "friend", had been isolated long enough for me to identify any possible health problems, but I was wrong.  The 3 sick turtles were transferred to my "isolation ward", a section of countertop walled off and illuminated by 4 spotlights on a timer.  This keeps the ambient temperature much warmer (around 85 degrees F)  than is usually recommended.  The area is divided into 3 sections by placing a large aquarium in the middle of it (the aquarium itself holds one of the turtles). The turtles were given long soaks in warm water (with some Epsom salts) several times each day.  Linus seemed to recover to a chronic runny nose, and continued to feed.  Karl and Naraht, however, became listless and stopped feeding.  Their breathing was labored, and they gaped and stretched their necks trying to get air.  I finally decided that antibiotics would be necessary.  One of the advantages of living in a small town is that there is a farm store across the street from my office, and another on my way home.  Both sell veterinary antibiotics.  I first tried oral antibiotics, but there was no response.  Desperate, I turned to injectable oxytetracycline.  The response in both Karl and Naraht was both immediate and dramatic.  Within a week, both were back to "normal" other than the fact that they wouldn't eat - not even earthworms.  This was just before Christmas break,  and Naraht developed a swelling in the cheek.  I took him home over break.  It turned out to be an ear infection, which I drained.  He recovered without any additional antibiotics.  By now (February), all three are doing fine.  Linus still seems to have a little "congestion", but Karl has been returned to the floor enclosure and is eating voraciously.  The other 3 males (Linus, Naraht, and Eric) are in the "isolation ward" as much to keep them from fighting as for any other reason.  Coming so close to losing Naraht increased my resolve to turn him loose.  I'd been through too much with him to have him die now, without experiencing freedom one more time.  Having all of these males around is also difficult, and I plan to release Karl,and Eric as well.

Update - May, 1997 - Naraht is free and roaming the hills. I really grew to love this guy, and it was very hard to set him free. But the idea that he is free and safe makes the hours and hours of scrubbing his shell and cleaning his cage seem worthwhile. Towards the end of his time with me, he became very tame and would stand up on three legs to get his food. Still, I'm happy he's out there rooting under logs, terrorizing the earthworms, and keeping an eye open for the females. Maybe he's run into Gauchere or Karl. I like the idea of Naraht, now healthy, pushing that bully Gauchere around a bit.  Naraht was released on what is becoming a box turtle preserve in Washington County. Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watchers Digest, and his wife, wildlife artist Julie Zickefoose, have a small plot of land where all things natural are welcome and protected, and Naraht joined Karl,  Gauchere and other lucky turtles there, far away from busy roads and mean children.

Update - July, 1999 - Naraht has been seen twice! The first time was in the fall of 1998. Julie called me with the news and I took a class out to see him the next day. He looked great and the copper wire had fallen out. Then, in May of 1999, Julie found him again. I was out of town, but Julie fed him strawberries and mealworms, then put him in with a female turtle she was rehabilitating. They mated and Naraht was set free again. With treatment like that, I think Naraht will be seen frequently!

Update - May 2000 - Naraht returns again!  In what has come to be his annual pilgrimage, Naraht again made his May appearance at Julie and Bill's compost pile.  He seems to be doing well.  Julie tells the story the best:

"For the third spring in a row, I've found Naraht in my front yard. Four years ago, Dave McShaffrey of Marietta College brought him to me, having mended his shell over a period of years from what looked like a car or baseball bat injury--huge cracks along the front and top of his carapace. Copper wire held the shell together until it healed. He still sports drilled holes and exposed bone on his carapace, but it obviously doesn't slow him down. This morning, he was trundling across the lawn toward the worm-rich compost pile, bright eyed and in great condition. I brought him in the house for a drink and breakfast of mealworms, introduced him to Linda, (see below) who he tried to court. Linda pressed the attack and I had to separate them, or there would have been turtle parts all over the floor. I took Naraht back outside and told him I'd see him next year.."

Julie Zickefoose


Update - July 2001 - It's late July and Naraht hasn't made an appearance since last summer.  I have the same apprehensive feeling I get in the fall when I get the Whale Adoption renewal packet and the newsletter doesn't have a sighting for my adopted whale, Patches.  But Patches always shows up the next year and I'm sure Naraht will as well.  Anyway, Julie is a busy person and it's not impossible that she just missed him in the narrow window of time he visits that part of his realm that they call their yard.

Above: The split on the left side of Naraht's shell is indicated by the white line. Note the copper wire holding the shell sections together.

Below. The split on the left side of the shell. Above are two wire terminals, cut and super-glued to either side of the crack. 30 gauge wire ties them together. Ventral to these is a small splint superglued across the crack.


What happened to Naraht?  Click here for more of this amazing turtle's story....


Carol Karl Linus Linda Terry

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Updated 5/9/2003