How this tortoise gets around using a makeshift wheelchair


Sherman loves dandelions.

On a warm, sunny May morning, he was  moving around a field full of them, looking as content as could be.

Sherman is an African sulcata tortoise and livees at the Magnetic Hill Zoo in Moncton.

He’s 24 years old, and the only foods he loves more than dandelions are watermelon and sweet potatoes.

The zoo obtained Sherman from a rescue organization in Ontario in 2014.

He had some minor health issues when he arrived but recovered quickly, settled in well at the zoo, found a girlfriend and received the best of care from zoo staff.

Staff at the zoo say it’s still unclear whether Sherman will need a wheelchair for the rest of his life. (Lara Cusak/Submitted)

Then things took a turn last year. 

“First we noticed a decrease in his mobility, a decrease in appetite,” said Gabrielle Jacob, a veterinarian technician at the zoo. “He was staying in the same area of his enclosure almost eight hours a day.” 

Trying to help Sherman

Jacob said figuring out what was wrong with him wasn’t easy. 

“First thing we tried was blood work — very hard to get a blood draw on a tortoise,” she said.”As you know, they can retract their limbs into their shell and they have very, very hard scales on the outside.

“So you kind of have to manouevre your needle in between scales, find a vein. So he usually needs to be sedated for that. And we had multiple veterinarians try multiple blood draws. We did eventually get enough, but it was definitely a process.”

The African sulcata tortoise was equipped with a makeshift wheelchair at Moncton’s Magnetic Hill Zoo. 2:25

The blood work didn’t give a clear answer.

So next came X-rays and CT scans.

That process brought more challenges.

Sherman’s shell was too dense to get an X-ray image and the CT scan machine at the local animal hospital was too small for him to fit into.

So off he went to the Atlantic Veterinary College in P.E.I, which had a bigger machine.

The scan revealed a mass on Sherman’s backside.

A scan revealed a mass on Sherman’s backside. (Adeline Animal Hospital/Submitted)

It was impossible to do a biopsy to determine what the mass was.

Jill Marvin, the zoo’s director, said it’s being treated with antibiotics and anti-fungal medication.

And so far, so good.

“Since it did not grow from December to May, we are suspecting that it is not cancerous and is responding to treatment.”

“I think that it’s a relief that he’s seen some improvement in the little over a year and a half. It makes me really proud of the team at Magnetic Hill Zoo, animal care. Welfare is our top priority out here. We’ve had great collaboration between the zookeepers, our veterinary team and veterinarians throughout Atlantic Canada. As far as Quebec.

“It is just great to see the collaboration and how much importance everybody is putting on Sherman’s care.” 

Sherman’s makeshift wheelchair

While everyone was trying to figure out Sherman’s health issues, staff at the zoo had to solve another problem: how to help Sherman get around.

They came up with the idea of a makeshift wheelchair, built by a local carpenter.

It’s basically a cart with two wheels on the back.

At 80 kilograms, it takes two people to lift Sheldon up and onto the cart.

Gabrielle Jacob, a veterinarian technician at the zoo, said she noticed Sherman’s mobility issues last year. (Jonna Brewer/CBC News)

They strap him in and off he goes.

Gabrielle Jacob said it’s a joy to see.

“He’s showing great improvement. But I mean, it’s like he’ll come out and he’ll go hard for the first 15, 20 minutes and go round really, really quickly.

“And then his body will start to be like, ‘OK, we need to slow down the legs.’ “

Jill Marvin, right, the zoo’s director, said the zoo will do everything it can to care for the tortoise. (Jonna Brewer/CBC News)

African sulcata tortoises can live 80 to 100 years, so Sherman potentially has a lot of life ahead of him.

Will he always need the wheelchair? Jill Marvin said they just don’t know. 

“It’s impossible to say how long will be his recovery, will he develop strength, will the mass grow or decrease. 

“It may get worse. What I’m sure of is, we will do everything we can.”

Keeping the tortoise’s spirits up 

Sherman has been staying in the zoo’s medical centre, but Marvin hopes to get him back to his enclosure in the zoo as soon as the site is made wheelchair friendly.

Someone in particular will be there to welcome him home.

That girlfriend mentioned earlier? That’s Penny, another African sulcata tortoise, who arrived a year before Sherman.

Sherman was having a hard time getting around so the Moncton zoo had to create a makeshift wheelchair, built by a local carpenter. (Jonna Brewer/CBC News)

Gabrielle Jacob said she’s been bringing Penny for visits with Sherman to keep his spirits up. It must be love.

 And what’s not to love about Sherman?  

“He’s very bright, very stubborn as well,” Jacob said. “If he decides he’s going to do something, he’ll run you over to do it. But he’s very, very sweet with all the poking and prodding and treatments he’s had to go through, he has just been the best to work with.

“We have a great relationship. I think he knows me. I think he can tell my voice apart from others. I take care of him five days a week. So I think we’re very close.”

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