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17-pound turtle recovering after being run over by car

VernHills Animal Hospital's Stephen L. Barten DVM 17-pound snapping turtle he operated after it was run over Glencoe driveway.

Vernon Hills Animal Hospital's Stephen L. Barten, DVM, and a 17-pound snapping turtle he operated on after it was run over in a Glencoe driveway. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 28, 2011 12:31PM

Laura Ashman was horrified to hear anyone was going to find out that she had run over a huge turtle with her car.

“My kids will think I’m terrible,” Glencoe’s Ashman, 48, said of her three children under 15, all big fans of various representatives of the animal kingdom.

Ashman told tales of rescuing injured dogs on the street, maintaining this defined her real relationship with animals, not the person who drives over snapping turtles trying to get to a safe place to lay their eggs.

But there it was. She had backed down her Edgebrook Lane driveway June 16, leaving the turtle with a shell split at 10 o’clock and 5 o’clock.

She called the Glencoe police, and the responding officer found a bloody, 17-pound snapping turtle who still had some life in her.

He called animal control officer Katie Sweeney, who was off duty. But Sweeney headed over to the 1000 block of Edgebrook Lane anyway.

She knew what the turtle was doing there. This time of year, snapping turtles leave the Skokie Lagoons for nearby egg-laying fields, which often happen to be in the backyards of Glencoe residents.

Ashman knows that too, because previously, snappers have journeyed to her property to lay and bury their eggs. One time, her husband Bradley said, he lifted a backyard chicken-wire fence to release a turtle who had got in for the purpose, but couldn’t remember how when it came time to get out.

Sweeney called Chicago Herpetological Society president Jason Hood for guidance. The Evanston resident told her the right man for carapace reconstruction was Stephen Barten, DVM, of the Vernon Hills Animal Hospital, in Mundelein.

So she tucked a towel in a cardboard box and inserted the big snapping turtle for her car ride to 1260 S. Butterfield Road, where Barten sees a couple of similar cases annually, usually for free.

He was peeved to hear that a driver had not managed to evade an animal that weighed 17 pounds.

“It’s like a bowling ball,” he growled.

But he said it was understandable that a driver could miss the big reptile if she were backing up (the driver, not the animal).

An X-ray indicated the turtle — now named Jenna after a hospital employee — had an intact spine and no internal injuries. Dozens of circles on the X-ray indicated a belly full of eggs. Some could be felt by poking her near the rear legs.

The bleeding ended on its own: “It’s like a skinned knee,” Barten said. “It stops eventually.”

He lined up dress hooks on each side of the cracks, and glued them to the shell with epoxy. He used wire to tie the hooks to each other.

“The sides attached very well together,” he said.

Despite the mechanical nature of the fix, he stressed that “I don’t want anybody to try this at home.

“I took an X-ray, flushed the wound with antiseptic, used an injectable antibiotic, and an anesthetic to set the bone. This is a broken bone, you know.”

He said that despite the danger inherent in egg-laying turtles trying to navigate streets, turtles seen on highways should not be taken away from the area where they’re found.

“Just pick them up and take them across the street in the direction they were headed,” he said.

If taken farther away, they may never get back to their habitats.

That’s not good enough for some homeowners, however. The day before Jenna became a living speed bump, a woman living three blocks away called Glencoe police to get a turtle off her driveway. A police officer told her to leave it alone, and let it leave on its own.

But it didn’t go fast enough for her, and the officer had to come back a few hours later and take it off the property. Sweeney’s not sure if the same turtle was involved in all three police calls.

The dress hooks would eventually fall off Jenna’s back, after her shell has knit, but until then, they could catch on weeds, drowning her in water or marooning her on land. So Friday, Barten took her to a sort of rest home where she can recover through the summer.

Rob Carmichael and his staff at the Wildlife Discovery Center at Elawa Farm in Lake Forest run a wildlife rehabilitation operation, and they had room for Jenny. Barten set her down — “All you have to do is hold her by the shell behind the front legs” — in an outdoor pen enclosed by a chain-link fence.

Carmichael said that he’ll collect the eggs after they’re laid and buried, and put them in an indoor incubator. He expects them to have a much better chance of survival than they would have had in any Glencoe yard, because raccoons usually dig them up and eat them.

Last week, Ashman, concerned, asked over the phone if the turtle was going to be all right. If Jenny’s arrival at Elawa Farm is an indication, she’s okay.

As soon as she was deposited on the ground, she whipped her head around and took a lightning-fast snap at a reporter’s leg.

She missed, but the spirit was willing.

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