‘Cruelty to turtles is not OK,’ says Chattanooga wildlife rehabilitator treating turtle thrown from moving car

Contributed Photo / A wildlife rehabilitator displays an abrasion on the front right side of the shell of a river cooter thrown from a fast-moving car on M.L. King Boulevard on Sunday night.

The Chattanooga Police Department earlier this week transported a turtle to local wildlife rehabilitation facility For Fox Sake after she was thrown from a fast-moving vehicle, fracturing her shell.

The incident was criticized on social media as a yeeting — a heedless, forceful and often damaging toss.

The turtle, called Zoe, should recover and return to the wild, but turtles and other reptiles suffer just as much as animals who express their pain in more human-like ways, according to rehabilitator Juniper Russo, who is using the incident as an opportunity to bring awareness to misconceptions about turtles in hopes of preventing future abuse.

"I'm excited for there to be some attention drawn to the fact that cruelty to turtles is not OK," Russo said.

Tyann Chapman was biking home from work Sunday night when she observed a river cooter – a freshwater turtle species often found basking on riverbanks, logs and stones in the Eastern and Central U.S. – being thrown from a car on M.L. King Boulevard.

She called the Police Department's nonemergency number to report the crime, she told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by phone.

McKamey Animal Center, which handles cases of animal abuse for the city of Chattanooga, could not take the turtle late at night, so the responding Chattanooga police officer took the injured turtle to For Fox Sake.

"I have seen a lot of cruelty to turtles, just in general, and I have seen a lot of turtles hit by cars, and occasionally, according to the people that have seen it, intentionally," Russo said by phone. "But as far as being thrown from a car, this is the first for me."

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Zoe's injuries are consistent with being thrown from a vehicle. The large flat abrasion on the front of her shell was likely caused by the impact of hitting the pavement, Russo said.

"It looks like she basically hit the pavement face first and then retracted inside her shell, so it hit her shell rather than her face," Russo said.

Zoe also has a fractured shell and, although it is relatively minor for a shell fracture, broken shells are always pretty serious, Russo said.

"They're both a broken bone and an open wound," Russo said of shell fractures. "So thinking of it in those terms, they're never minor."

She expects Zoe to recover once the shell has had time to granulate, which she will do at the rehab facility before being released into the wild in order to make sure the wound doesn't get infected.

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"Unfortunately, without a vehicle license plate or other identifying information, it is unlikely we will be able to identify the perpetrator," McKamey Director of Advancement Lauren Mann said, adding that most of the turtle-related issues seen at McKamey involve either a wild turtle being harmed by an encounter with a vehicle or a pet turtle that has not been given proper care or nutrition.

Zoe appears to be a wild turtle rather than a pet based on the long-lasting algae growth on her shell, as well as the fact that river cooters are uncommon in the pet trade because they are shy around people, Russo said.

She was glad McKamey and the Chattanooga police officer took the crime seriously, as some people do not consider cruelty against reptiles to be as serious as cruelty against mammals because they express pain in different ways.

"If you throw a puppy out of a car, it's going to cry, it's going to make sounds and facial expressions that a human can easily identify as being pain," Russo said. "So most people who are not just the absolute sickest of sociopaths would not abuse a puppy in the same way that they will sometimes abuse a turtle."

But turtles and other reptiles have a central nervous system, and they feel pain, suffering and a full spectrum of emotions, she said.

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"After working with turtles for a long time, I've definitely noticed the different signs to look for that an animal is suffering," Russo said, adding that signs include not eating, spending more time withdrawn into its shell, grimacing and hissing or making other distressed noises. "They definitely do feel pain. It's just hard for a lot of people to really notice and acknowledge that."

Among the cases of turtle abuse seen by Russo are several instances in which someone carved their name or initials into a turtle's shell.

"No one would ever even think about doing that to a puppy," she said. "But I think that they just get this idea that the turtle is not really a living thing, that it's more like a tree or that it's an inanimate object rather than a real living being with feelings."

The shell is a complicated living organ system with blood vessels, nerve systems, bone and skin, Russo said.

"People think of it as being kind of like your hair or your nails, but it's actually a lot more like your spine," she said. "It can experience pain and it can experience bleeding and infection as well."

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.