Lego wheelchair keeps injured turtle on the move

An eastern box turtle is on the mend and on the move again thanks to the creative helping hand of a student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon.

Garrett Fraess was doing a nine-week internship with the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore when he became part of a team of veterinarians who built a wheelchair from Lego to help the turtle recover.

The turtle was brought to the zoo's hospital after a staff member discovered the reptile in a nearby park with multiple fractures on the underside of its shell. After undergoing extensive surgery, the turtle required rest and recuperation time, which limited its mobility.

In order to keep the turtle mobile, Fraess built it a wheelchair using what he called everyone's favourite childhood toy.

"We were brainstorming and trying different things, and none of them were working quite right, then I thought 'What about Lego?'" Fraess told CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning.

The veterinary student reached out to a friend in Denmark, who he described as a Lego enthusiast, and together they designed a wheelchair to help keep the turtle moving. Fraess came up with schematics for the chair using his knowledge of the reptile's anatomy, while his friend provided the Lego pieces and the sketches of her vision from afar.

The one-of-a-kind wheelchair was assembled in Maryland and custom fitted using surgical equipment from the zoo and a bit of plumbers putty to keep it attached to the grapefruit-sized turtle.

Submitted by Maryland Zoo
Submitted by Maryland Zoo

Fraess said the chair has made a difference to the reptile's well-being.

"He was moving around, he was turning on a dime, he was able to withdraw himself in his shell; it was really cool to see him perk up," Fraess said.

Turtles have a slow metabolism, said Fraess, who estimated it will take roughly one year for the critter to fully heal from the fractures.

He said because the chair is constructed of Lego, vets will be able to slowly remove pieces of the contraption in order to help the turtle regain its strength back on its own, similar to physiotherapy.

Submitted by Maryland Zoo
Submitted by Maryland Zoo

While turtles are known for being aquatic creatures, eastern box turtles are more ground dwellers. Although the injured reptile can't spend much time around the marshy areas where it normally resides, Fraess said the turtle is still able to live a fairly normal life compared to its peers.

While he hopes he doesn't have to treat any more turtles with fractured shells, Fraess said he's glad he now has the resources he needs to address the problem in the future.

"The next time that happens, I'll be able to build a wheelchair really quickly," Fraess said.

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning