When David Steen encountered a drowned Florida cooter, he did what any dedicated wildlife ecologist would do: he performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
“I have never given a turtle mouth-to-mouth before and it's not something I hope to do again! I was kind of making it up as I went along,” Steen says to The Dodo in an email. Steen, a herpetologist at Auburn University’s Alabama Natural Heritage Program, had been studying a population of federally-protected Alabama red-bellied turtles with the use of aquatic traps when he encountered the waterlogged Florida cooter.
“It is important to always leave space at the top of the trap for turtles to breathe,” he says, “but sometimes things happen that are out of control when we are away from the traps.” The Florida cooter, unfortunately, had swallowed water after being caught in the trap, and lay motionless for 20 minutes after Steen placed the reptile at the bottom of his boat.
But a twitch of the turtle’s leg spurred the herpetologist to action. Steen — attempting to mimic the chest compressions he had learned in a human first aid course — tried to support the turtle’s circulation with squeezes near the back legs.
“Pressing on the shell wasn't an option so I reached under the shell and tried to push upwards on the animal's hindquarters,” he says. “I was encouraged by some gurgling noises and the animal began to breathe more naturally on its own.” And once the reptile was safely back in the realm of the breathing, Steen set the cooter free.