Injured tortoise gets training wheels

12:45 AM, Dec 10, 2008   |    comments
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Bonita Springs, Florida -  Bandit wasn't expected to survive. When the gopher tortoise was crushed by a car in a parking lot at Barefoot Beach Preserve, his shell split open, his organs were pushed out of his body and his spine was damaged.

Now, each morning he is strapped to a scooter with skate wheels. He uses his front legs to pull himself - at speeds surely unknown to him - racing around on tile floors and speeding toward the door.

Bandit is recovering at The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and while Friends of Barefoot Beach hope to raise money for his medical bills - it costs $1,400 for six months of his care - the group's main goal is to use the tortoise to educate the public about keeping this Florida threatened species safe.

Bandit is the seventh gopher tortoise to be hit by a car at Barefoot Beach Preserve this year. Only Bandit and one other survived. And Bandit's future still doesn't look too rosy.

The tortoise suffered severe spinal injuries, has almost no use of his back legs and has trouble moving waste through his intestinal tract. At The Conservancy, he receives aqua pressure treatments each day to help him regain his movement.
It was the demise of another tortoise that led to Bandit's name. Earlier this year he moved into the hole abandoned by a tortoise that was hit by a car and died in the exact same spot where Bandit was injured. After he "stole" the tortoise hole, volunteers with Friends of Barefoot Beach named him Bandit.

Every day Bandit is strapped to his customized skateboard. He isn't shy. He doesn't retreat into his shell when people are around.

"He was very, very damaged," said Joanna Fitzgerald-Vaught, director of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at The Conservancy. "But he does get around very well on that scooter."

Experts at The Conservancy placed Bandit's organs back in his body and are using duct tape to keep his shell together.

"Duct tape is the best bandage because these guys can bathe in it," said wildlife rehabilitation specialist Jess Bender.

Fitzgerald-Vaught expects Bandit's recovery to take a long time, and he might become a permanent resident if his back legs don't become mobile.

"The thing with tortoises is their rehab process can take well over a year because they are very slow to heal," she said. "After that time, if he is not doing well, he would stay here."

Margaret Winn, president of the Friends of Barefoot Beach, hopes Bandit will be a sort of poster tortoise to help educate the public. Despite numerous signs all over the preserve telling people to slow down and watch for tortoises and to look under their vehicles before leaving their parking spots, tortoises are still being crushed.

"We want to use this as a vehicle for public education," Winn said. "We're hoping we will make people more aware. This is the seventh one that has happened this calendar year. That's a pretty high thing."

There are more than 70 tortoises living at the Barefoot Beach Preserve. Bandit weighs about 12 pounds and is at least 20 years old so he wasn't hard to see. He was crossing the main parking lot when someone drove over him.

"That's sickening," Fitzgerald-Vaught said. "It's disturbing that with all the education they are still being hit. With signs everywhere to have seven hit in one population is disturbing."

Andrea Stetson-News

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