Someone Dumped Red Paint All Over This Frightened Tortoise

He was covered in concrete, too — but the kindest people are working to clean him off.

A woman was driving with her husband in Osceola County, Florida, last week when she spotted something unusual on the road. It looked like a turtle, she thought, but it was bright red. The woman did a double take.

“The woman said, ‘I didn’t realize we had red turtles like that,’” Kim Titterington, founder of Swamp Girl Adventures, an organization that rescues and rehabilitates wild animals and a partner of the Central Florida Wildlife Center, told The Dodo. “Then they got closer and realized the animal’s situation.”

Gopher tortoise covered in red paint
The gopher tortoise shortly after he was rescued | Swamp Girl Adventures

The “turtle” turned out to be a gopher tortoise, which is a vulnerable and protected species in Florida — and the animal was covered from nose to tail in concrete and red paint.

The couple who found him gathered up the tortoise and rushed him a local vet, who got in touch with Titterington, who has a lot of experience rescuing tortoises, turtles and other wild animals in Florida.

Wild tortoise covered in red paint
Swamp Girl Adventures

“My first reaction was disgust, because I hate to see any animal in a bad situation, and I was definitely very concerned because we don’t know what kind of paint it was, and we didn’t know how long it had been on there,” Titterington said.

While it’s possible the tortoise got concrete on him from a construction site, Titterington suspects that someone did it intentionally — and she’s certain that, at the very least, someone deliberately covered him in the paint.

Wild tortoise covered in red paint
Swamp Girl Adventures

“Unless we actually speak to the person who did it and find out more details, we don’t know exact facts,” Titterington said. “But what we do know is that the concrete ended up on him first … and from there, it looks like he was spray-painted. Basically 95 percent of his body was covered in paint.”

Titterington quickly noticed that the tortoise's coordination was off, and she didn’t think it was due to the hardened concrete — she suspected it was from the toxins in the concrete and spray paint. “He was moving in a drunken stagger, and that definitely told me that the toxins had gotten into his system,” she said.

Person cleaning paint from tortoise with a toothbrush
Titterington cleaning the paint from Raphael using soap and a toothbrush | Swamp Girl Adventures

Back at the Swamp Girl Adventures rescue center, Titterington immediately started working to get the concrete and paint off of the tortoise (now named Raphael) by using a toothbrush, Dawn dish soap and a mild vinegar solution. She also made sure to fully hydrate Raphael to help him regain his strength and flush the toxins out.

“We noticed a great improvement in his ability to walk and function in about 24 hours,” Titterington said. “He was walking in a straight line and he was much more responsive.”

Rescued tortoise inside tub of water
Swamp Girl Adventures

She’s since managed to remove about 85 percent of the paint from Raphael’s body, but there are still a few patches left on his limbs and face. “They’re sensitive areas,” Titterington said. “When we try and clean his face, he doesn’t want us to touch his face, and I don’t blame him."

Gopher tortoises like Raphael play an invaluable role in the Florida ecosystem, so saving his life is crucial, according to Titterington.

Rescue tortoise with red paint on him
Swamp Girl Adventures

“In Florida, they’re actually considered a keystone species, and that’s because the burrows they make are actually the home to about 360 other species of animal,” Titterington said. “If we don’t have any more gopher tortoises … we lose all of these these animals.”

Titterington is optimistic that Raphael will make a full recovery, although she’ll keep him under observation for a while. “With chemicals that seep in, you don’t always see the effects,” Titterington said. “We’re going to hold him for a little bit, just to watch him to see if there are any signs that are concerning … but at this point, I really think he can be released back into the wild.”

Rescue tortoise on the grass
Titterington has now managed to remove the majority of the paint from Raphael. | Swamp Girl Adventures

Raphael’s feistiness is particularly encouraging to Titterington. “He’s a very hyper, very driven tortoise,” she said. “He kind of has this, ‘I’m going to do what I want to do’ attitude, which is very good. He wants to be wild.”

To help Raphael make a full recovery, and to help other tortoises like him, you can make a donation to Swamp Girl Adventures.