Sea turtles, other rescued animals come to Chattanooga to avoid Hurricane Irma

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(Image: Tennessee Aquarium)

(Editor's note: This story was contributed by Casey Phillips of the Tennessee Aquarium)

Animal care experts at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center spent the last several days making plans to move a group of sea turtles and other creatures out of harm’s way as Hurricane Irma’s path came into focus. More than two dozen animals were loaded into a transport truck for the eight-hour drive from Jekyll Island, Ga., to the Tennessee Aquarium today.

“We received a call for assistance on Wednesday, and we’ve been busy making the necessary arrangements since then,” said Matt Hamilton, the Aquarium’s curator of fishes. “Fortunately we have some spacious saltwater tanks for the sea turtles, and we’ve been able to provide comfortable accommodations for the other animals as well.”

Late Friday evening, a two-vehicle caravan from Jekyll Island arrived at the Aquarium’s Animal Care Facility carrying Loggerhead, Green and Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles. Joining them were a group of Gopher Tortoises, Diamondback Terrapins, Box Turtles and other reptiles. Many of these animals are either threatened or endangered species and originally came to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center as rescues.

Despite making a temporary detour to Chattanooga, most of these animals are on the road to recovery. Having a secure facility in which they can shelter and continue the process of healing is critical, says MichelleKaylor, the rehabilitation coordinator at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.

“It’s nice to get the animals away from harm and get them put up in a situation where they’re safe and taken care of,” says Keller, who used to work at the Tennessee Aquarium before taking her position at the center.

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center serves as one of the Southeast’s top marine life rehabilitation, research and education facilities. Most animals only pass through the center after they become ill or experience an injury. After they recover, biologists reintroduce the animals to their native habitat, but occasionally, an animal has to remain longer or find another more permanent accommodations. While in Chattanooga, care of the relocated animals will be overseen by Tennessee Aquarium staff in collaboration with about a dozen specialists from the Jekyll Island facility, including its veterinarian and director.

While working as a biologist at the Tennessee Aquarium,Kaylor was instrumental in bringing another Green Sea Turtle to Chattanooga more than a decade ago. When “Oscar” was rescued and rehabilitated, it was determined that the extent of his injuries would greatly reduce his chances for survival in the wild. When it was decided that he needed to be in human care permanently, Kaylor made arrangements for him to live in Chattanooga. Aquarium guests enjoy seeing Oscar in the Secret Reef exhibit, where his injuries help illustrate the threats sea turtles face around the world.

The Aquarium’s Animal Care Facility has served as a temporary home for rescued animals before.

In May 2010, a Giant Guitarfish named “Gibson” was rescued from the Nashville Aquarium Restaurant in the aftermath of historic flooding in the state capital. The Tennessee Aquarium sent a team of biologists and divers to save Gibson and transport the massive fish back to the Animal Care Facility. After more than three months, Gibson was returned to the Music City, having grown nearly 10 inches while in Chattanooga.

Hopefully, the animals evacuated from Irma’s path will not have to remain in the Scenic City as long, but they’ll have a home at the Aquarium as long as one is needed.

“We’re certainly prepared to take care of them until it’s safe for them to return to Georgia,” Hamilton said..2