FIU biological sciences alumna Kristen Nettleton helped treat Zoo Miami’s first-ever patient at its new Sea Turtle Hospital. Though the official opening is scheduled for July 6th, the team at Zoo Miami was ready to provide life-saving care for an endangered — and pregnant — loggerhead turtle that likely fell victim to a shark attack late last month, according to Zoo Miami Communications Director Ron Magill.
The large female loggerhead, named Baymax by zoo staff, had been rescued from the Port St. Lucie Power Plant with a severe wound to her left front flipper, leaving only exposed bone and torn flesh. Zoo Miami’s newly constructed Sea Turtle Hospital had recently passed inspection and received its permits to accept sick and injured sea turtles, so the decision was made by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to transfer the injured animal to the zoo for treatment and rehabilitation.
Nettleton works with new animals going through standard quarantine before being placed in their designated areas at the zoo. She is also part of the new sea turtle rehabilitation team at the hospital. Since Baymax’s arrival on May 22, Nettleton has been assisting with her feedings, tank cleaning and medical treatments, which can involve hopping in the tank to bring Baymax to the surface.
Weighing in at 388 pounds, Baymax also has scars on her shell that indicate she had possibly been struck by a boat and bitten by another shark earlier in her life, Magill said. Her pregnancy was discovered during the initial examination at the hospital. So once she was stabilized, the team transferred her to a special pen filled with sand, which Nettleton helped construct, where Baymax successfully delivered more than 100 eggs. Those eggs are now in the care of the Miami-Dade Parks Sea Turtle Conservation Program for incubation.
Following the delivery, zoo veterinarians removed the remaining pieces of bone on her left fin and further cleaned and treated the wound during a seven-hour surgery. While it's not uncommon for sea turtles to lose limbs to sharks or boat strikes, many adjust and lead productive lives. Following the successful surgery, Baymax was transferred to a recovery tank at the hospital where she will be monitored for the next several weeks with the hopes of releasing her back to the ocean once she heals.
While a student at FIU, Nettleton interned and volunteered at Zoo Miami. She graduated with a degree in biological sciences in 2020 and, after working with primates at Monkey Jungle for a year, returned to the zoo as a full-time employee in September.