Turtle Acupuncture in Orion Magazine Sept/Oct 2014

For a while now, I’ve been fascinated by the work of Claire McManus, an acupuncturist whose patients have included dogs, bongos and warthogs. I spent an afternoon with her at the New England Aquarium’s Rescue and Rehabilitation center to watch her treat sea turtles.

In the Sept/Oct 2014 issue, Orion Magazine published my story about turtle acupuncture. I’m pretty flattered to be published in Orion — it’s a beautifully produced magazine focused on nature and environmental issues with some heavy hitting contributors and advisors. It first caught my eye when I read an article by Sy Montgomery about octopi.

My own article is not available on Orion’s website, but I’m posting it here:

Reptile Recovery

DEXTER IS HAVING TROUBLE with
his shoulder. He lies on a table, his belly
placed on a clean white towel, while Claire
McManus, a specialist working with Dexter’s
primary care-giver, Dr. Charlie Innis,
palpates his limbs, pressing her fingers
gently along his skin to locate the bones
and muscles underneath. The lights in
the room are turned down to relax the patient,
and McManus pulls a small needle,
the width of a human hair, from its sterile
package. Carefully, she taps one into Dexter.
A dozen more will be placed into his
head and limbs.

“Unfortunately, we can’t get to his
back,” McManus says.

Dexter’s shell makes that impossible.

Claire McManus is an acupuncturist,
and today she is working at the New
England Aquarium’s rescue and rehabilitation
center, where Dr. Innis is the
aquarium’s head of veterinary medicine
and a specialist on sea turtles. Innis
doesn’t believe that Dexter’s occasional
movements are signs that the needles
cause him any pain. “Even if you’re not
[performing acupuncture],” he says,
“they’re as active as he’s being now. They
definitely don’t withdraw their flipper
like they would if it was a larger needle.”

McManus emphasizes that her practice
is not “alternative medicine,” because
it is not mutually exclusive with Western
medicine. In this case, the procedure is
a complementary therapy, working alongside
science to aid in healing. Or, as Dr.
Innis puts it, “Doesn’t matter what works
as long as the animals improve and can
be released to the wild.”

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese
medical practice based on the regulation
of the flow of qi through the body.
In humans, pressure points have been
mapped out, each corresponding to a
specific area of the body. “A lot of them
overlap with muscle bundles and when
these pathways are blocked, there’s some
sort of imbalance or pain,” says McManus.
“It could be difficulty moving a limb,
depression, anxiety—it could be a whole
range of things from something physical
to something emotional.”

Dexter can’t tell us if his trauma is
mental as well as physiological—for all
we know, it might be both. Members of
Dexter’s species, the Kemp’s ridley sea
turtle, are born on beaches in Mexico
and travel up and down the East Coast of
North America following warm currents.
Unfortunately, Cape Cod juts east into the
Atlantic and acts like a giant barrier, confusing
and trapping southbound turtles in
Massachusetts Bay. Most years, anywhere
from 30 to 80 of these endangered turtles
are found stranded on New England
beaches and tended to by the aquarium’s
rescue and rehab department. The winter
of 2012 to 2013 was a particularly bad season,
with 242 turtles brought to the aquarium
and more than 100 others found
dead on shore. Many rescued turtles are
treated by the aquarium staff and released
within weeks, while others stay as long as
a year and a half. When regular veterinary
medicines are not working, the aquarium
sometimes calls in outside help.

“When they called me, I did a little
online research and found a rehab place
in Israel, where a vet had treated turtles,”
McManus says. “I talked to them about
styles of needling, gauges of the needles
they would use. There is a small community
of researchers and vets out there who
are doing this kind of work.”

The first time she treated a turtle, McManus
asked one of the veterinary assistants
how she would know if the turtle
was going to bite her. “He said, ‘He’ll
do this,’” and then mimed a slow motion
turn of the head and opening of the
jaw. If a turtle tries to bite, she was told,
“You’ve got a lot of reaction time.”

More and more animals—both wild
and domestic—are seeing acupuncturists.
Numbers are hard to come by, but
major veterinary schools like those at
Tufts and Cornell offer some acupuncture
training to students who request it.
Anatomical maps of acupuncture points,
like those used for the human body, are
being created for animals too, especially
domestic livestock. Chinese practitioners
have made charts for dogs, horses, camels,
and elephants. “You and I aren’t all
that different, structurally, from a dog,”
McManus explains. “We all have femurs,
tibia, all the same bones and a lot of the
same muscles.”

After about twenty minutes, McManus
removes the needles from Dexter,
five from each limb and two from his
head. Since his treatment started a
week ago his appetite has increased; the
acupuncture seems to be working. Following
the procedure, Dexter returns to
his tank, where Dr. Innis will monitor
his progress and, eventually, release
him back into the ocean. With luck, he
will live a long life and never set foot on
land again.

This article originally appeared in Orion.

Proper Citation:
Cheng, Jack “Reptile Recovery,” Orion Magazine 33:4, Sept/Oct 2014, p. 12-13

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