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Kale, a Kemp's ridley sea turtle from the Cook Museum of Natural Science, receives a CT scan to examine his infection at Decatur Morgan Hospital on Tuesday.

Cook Museum’s turtle gets a CT scan

Decatur Morgan Hospital had an unusual patient Tuesday with a natural greenish color and the need for a damp cloth to cover his eyes.

Kale, a critically endangered species of sea turtle from the Cook Museum of Natural Science, received a computerized tomography (CT) scan at the hospital to check his progress recovering from an infection that has kept him from being in an exhibit for 18 months.

“This was the first animal of any kind that we’ve ever done a CT scan of over here at Decatur Morgan,” said Candace Pettey, the hospital’s marketing and community relations coordinator. “It was a lot of fun to watch, and as an animal lover, I’m glad we got to help him out.”

Kale, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, has been suffering from an infection on his carapace, or shell, and was removed from display at the Cook Museum, where he was the unofficial mascot, in January 2022. Kale came to the museum in 2020 because he couldn’t be returned to the wild following surgery to repair damage to his throat when he was accidentally hooked by a recreational fisherman in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay.

The infection is a separate issue from the neck injury. Joy Harris, marketing coordinator at the museum, said they are unsure when or how the infection got started.

“This could have been present before he was even accidentally caught in New England, so we really don’t know how long this has been in his system,” she said. “It’s kind of like humans, he could’ve picked it up anywhere.”

The CT scan was done to examine the infection and monitor the success of the Cook Museum’s veterinarians and animal care team in treating Kale’s damaged carapace.

“This was to kind of quantify how much he has progressed,” Harris said. “We knew he was mending, but this helps us tell the extent of his healing.”

As of Thursday morning, the museum did not have any “complete results to share” from the CT scan, according to Harris.

Kale did not have to be sedated to get his scan. “He was a good turtle and stayed calm,” said Harris.

Pettey had the opportunity to watch the scan.

“We’re used to caring for the human members of our community so it’s nice when we get to do something a little bit different, especially to help another one of the organizations in Decatur,” she said.

Dr. Frank Scalfano, Dr. John Owens and other members of the hospital’s staff from varying departments helped facilitate the scan. Some museum staff, including live animal manager Cassandra Worlund, were also in the scanning room to help move Kale from his container to the scanning bed.

Sea turtles breathe air and only use water to “moisturize their skin and eyes,” according to Worlund, which is a reason a damp towel was kept over his eyes during the scan process. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles can weigh up to 100 pounds, but the process of moving Kale to the hospital went smoothly.

A Cook Museum vehicle was used to transport Kale. He was placed in a large gray bin with a “piece of bone” on the bottom, which acted as a “mattress” for the turtle to lie on, Worlund said. They used the same bin they used when they originally transported him from Virginia.

Cook Museum Executive Director Scott Mayo said in a statement that Decatur Morgan Hospital staff have “gone above and beyond” in their concern and care for Kale. He asked the hospital in late June if they could possibly get a scan for Kale, and the hospital responded quickly.

Hospital President Kelly Powers said in the statement: “We are so glad that we could help Kale and our friends at the Cook Museum.”

Since he was taken off display, Kale has been cared for at an off-site facility by the museum’s veterinary team and animal care staff for “over 900 man-hours,” Harris said.

Worlund is part of the animal care team. “Basically, what we’re doing is changing a bandage every week,” she said. “We’re making sure we’re clearing out any infection that he has.”

The team uses a “type of bone cement” to keep his infection sealed. They make sure there is “no water getting in, and he’s allowed to heal those wounds,” said Worlund.

Kale is still a “juvenile” turtle, only an estimated 7 to 10 years old, according to Harris.

There is no timeline for when Kale can return to the museum’s 15,000-gallon saltwater aquarium because the staff wants to make sure the turtle has a “clean bill of health” before he is back. The 28-foot-long and 6-foot-deep aquarium houses approximately 100 fish representing about 30 species along with Kale.

“We’re going to take all precautions before putting him back in the tank, so we don’t have to take him back off after he returns to the exhibit,” Harris said.

After Kale was caught by a fisherman’s hook in 2019, he had numerous surgeries. The turtle’s wound from the hook could not fully heal, causing scar tissue to develop and form a fistula, where debris can get caught. Due to this, Kale needs medical attention frequently and cannot be released back into the wild.

When he makes his eventual return to the museum’s aquarium, staff will watch carefully to make sure Kale stays healthy. “We will continue to do the regular care to make sure that nothing is caught in his fistula,” she said. “We’ll also just keep an extra careful eye on him to make sure he doesn’t show any more signs” of infection.

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