What has four LEGOs and crawls? Maryland box turtle takes slow road to recovery

A wild Eastern box turtle at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is on the mend and on the move thanks to some clever engineering using Lego bricks.  [Sinclair Miller/Maryland Zoo/TNS]
A wild Eastern box turtle at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is on the mend and on the move thanks to some clever engineering using Lego bricks. [Sinclair Miller/Maryland Zoo/TNS]
Published September 30

A wild Eastern box turtle at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore had trouble moving with a fractured shell.

So with some creativity, ingenuity and sketches, a veterinary student designed and built a small wheelchair for the turtle. The material? LEGOs.

And yes, there's video.

The turtle was injured and found in July by a zoo employee in Druid Hill Park. It was brought to the zoo's hospital, where veterinarians found several fractures on the bottom part of its shell.

The injuries were unusual for being underneath its shell, not on top, so the challenge became how to let the animal move around and also let the injury heal.

The zoo's veterinary team did surgery on the turtle and stabilized its shell. They inserted metal bone plates and sewing clasps, then used surgical wire to hold the "delicate shell fragments together," officials said.

But there was another problem. The bottom of the shell had to stay off the ground.

There are no turtle-sized wheelchairs, so Garrett Fraess - a fourth-year veterinary student who is on a clinical rotation at the zoo - came up with an idea: He drew some sketches of a customized wheelchair and sent them to a friend in Denmark who is a big a LEGO fan. She designed and built a small wheelchair, custom-fit for the grapefruit-sized turtle.

In a video, veterinarians show how they tweaked the LEGO wheelchair and fitted it on the turtle.

The wheelchair is unique in that it surrounds the turtle's shell and sits on four LEGO wheels, zoo officials said. With some help from plumber's putty, it attaches to the turtle's upper shell. Black, yellow and red LEGOs make up the wheelchair.

With the wheelchair strapped on, the turtle can move but still keep the bottom of its shell off the ground. It "allows his legs to be freed up so he can move," the zoo's turtle experts said.

The turtle appeared to like its new wheels.

"He never even hesitated," Fraess said. "He took off and has been doing great."

Eastern box turtles are a native species in Maryland. The Baltimore zoo has a special project at Druid Hill Park, where it has tagged and monitored more than 130 turtles over the last decade.

Tracking the turtles there helps conservationists learn more about how the turtles manage to survive in an urban setting. This particular turtle, tagged in 2000, is believed to be 18 years old.

Because turtles have a slower metabolism, they do not heal as fast as birds and mammals. The turtle will therefore likely use his LEGO wheelchair through the winter and into the spring.

Officials said the turtle retains strength in its front legs. And even with the wheelchair strapped to him, he still uses his animal instincts, such as "fully closing his shell if he feels threatened," officials said.

Once the wheelchair-bound turtle recovers, zoo officials said, they plan to return him to the park.

For now, the turtle shows signs of recovering.

"He can turn on a dime," Fraess said. "He can scoot like a normal turtle." And Fraess is thrilled that the unique design "wasn't ridiculed for being a zany idea."

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