by  Jackson Sveen

CORNELIUS – During his time as a veterinarian in South Africa, Dr. Paul Kritzinger worked on elephants, buffalo, antelope and zebra, among other wild animals.

But it wasn’t until he was in Cornelius at the North Mecklenburg Animal Hospital that he performed surgery on the wild and majestic turtle.

In summer 2012, Cornelius resident Robin Byrd brought a turtle she calls Wilber to the animal hospital with a fishhook lodged in his throat.

A discovery in the surgical room would show that the hook wasn’t stuck in his throat, but her throat, and that Wilber was more of a Wanda.

George Schaaf, the animal hospital’s “turtle wrangler,” determined the gender of the turtle, which can be difficult.

When Byrd brought the 5-pound, 30-year-old Wilber to Kritzinger, the hospital team determined the hook was  lodged too deep and needed to be surgically removed.

“In the summer, we get at least half a dozen pets with fish hooks in their feet or their mouth,” Kritzinger said. “We’ve had to remove hooks but nothing that has gone this far down the hatch.”

After vetting several options, the doctors were able to get the hook to a point in the Wilber’s skin where they could make small incision and break off the barb in order to remove the hook from the turtle’s throat.

The turtle recovered at the North Mecklenburg Animal Hospital and was returned to her home at Lake Norman.

“When I first released her back into the lake, I thought I may never see her again,” Byrd said. “I put her back in the water, and she started to swim off and turned around and came back. She did it again, swam off and came back. I think she was trying to tell us thank you in way.”

Wilber has migrated for the winter but Byrd is waiting for her buddy to return to their dock in Cornelius.

Where it all began

Wilber first started showing up at Byrd’s dock four years ago looking for food left behind for her cats.

Eventually the turtle showed up at a certain time everyday to eat.

One day, Byrd noticed that something was wrong with Wilber’s mouth.

Byrd called the Carolina Veterinary Specialists, but the reptile veterinarian was out of town.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do with Wilber,” said Byrd.

So she filled a box with lake water and brought the turtle to her friends at the North Mecklenburg Animal Hospital.

Kritzinger said they see a handful of wildlife come into their doors each year.

The animal hospital has what they call the Healing Fund, a collection of private donations that help with the treatment of wild animals.

“You would think it’s an animal-driven job, but its very people driven,” Kritzinger said.  “You get to meet interesting people like Robin and get to do these fun things as well. There is a lot of joy you get from making animals feel better and making people smile. It’s a very cool thing.”