Pita's plight holds sad lesson

Aquarium sea turtle died after eating ball thrown into tank

September 01, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

He was one of the first creatures to inhabit the National Aquarium in Baltimore, arriving even before William Donald Schaefer's famous jump into the seal pool, and one of the few with the stature and personality to warrant a name, not just a number.

And now that the medical plight of Pita the sea turtle has been memorialized on the ABC News documentary "Hopkins 24/7" - posthumously, it turns out - aquarium staff who cared for him are hoping his death won't be in vain.

Pita - an acronym for Pain in the Ankle, after his habit of nipping at the feet of divers - died in December of complications from surgery to remove a small, dense rubber ball from his intestine. The existence of the Superball, quite possibly bought at the aquarium's souvenir shop and dropped or thrown into the main tank Pita shared with sting rays and sharks, was discovered after medical imaging conducted at Johns Hopkins Hospital and shown on the ABC series that began airing this week.

"We see all kinds of foreign objects in our pools, " T. David Schofield, the aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Program Coordinator, said yesterday. "It's unfortunately a symbol of what happens in the natural environment."

"We're hoping [Pita's] story leads to a change in behavior and makes people be aware that they have to be careful, not just inside the aquarium," he said.

The aquarium, a major tourist attraction with 1.7 million annual visitors, has already changed some of its behavior: It stopped selling the Superballs shortly after Pita died.

Although officials describe the 200-pound turtle's death by ingestion as an "unprecedented incident" in the aquarium's nearly 20-year history, they are posting more warnings and telling their volunteer guides to make visitors more aware of the dangers of dropping objects into the aquarium's waters.

They have resisted the more drastic step of raising the wall around the main tank, figuring it would too greatly detract from the experience of visiting the facility.

It's not as if a boatload of items are dumped into the circular tank each day.

"It's what you'd fit in your hand," said Steve Broadhurst, the coordinator of the aquarium's divers. "On a daily basis, the No. 1 thing is paper, like the exhibit guide."

But other items find their way into the water as well.

Broadhurst remembers seeing a foot-long triggerfish expel a gold necklace.

Schofield recalls the time a man leaned over the railing to get a better look at the fish and lost his dentures. (They were fished out with a net.)

Not a wishing well

Though most of the objects that wind up in the aquarium's water seem to get there inadvertently, others do not.

Despite recorded warnings and a graphic depiction of a dead seal with a stomach full of coins next to a posted admonition not to throw objects into the water, aquarium officials regularly fish coins out of the outdoor seal pool.

"We regularly check our seals for zinc toxicity," said Ian D. F. Walker, the aquarium's associate veterinarian.

"Unfortunately, when some people see a body of water, they think `wishing well,'" said Broadhurst.

Stranded animals brought in from along the Atlantic coast as part of the marine rescue program often have other man-made maladies, ranging from entanglement in discarded fishing gear to ingestion of plastic to buckshot wounds.

Turtle a `beautiful animal'

A stranded sea turtle brought in from Ocean City over last weekend was so badly mangled from being struck by a boat's propeller it had to be put to sleep.

Which brings us back to Pita, whose death was not revealed on the television documentary Wednesday and who, despite his acronymic appellation, is described lovingly by those who knew him as a "beautiful animal" and a "charismatic mega-vertebrate."

As fondly as he is recalled, aquarium officials decided not to put up a memorial, reasoning it would slight other animals that died more natural deaths and in their own way were no less prized.

"We thought it wouldn't be fair for the little sardine," said Broadhurst.

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