For those who knew her, Georgette was a feisty drifter who lived and died in Forest Park.
She was also somewhat of a local celebrity.
The three-toed box turtle was one of the oldest subjects in the St. Louis Box Turtle Project, a study designed to understand the health and movement of urban turtles. Even among her armored prehistoric kin, Georgette was particularly tenacious. In 2014, she survived a serious bacterial infection, and a few months later, lost her front leg in an animal attack.
But the intense cold during last week’s polar vortex proved too much for her — and she died.
Jamie Palmer, a technician with the St. Louis Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Medicine, can pinpoint the day she first met Georgette: May 2, 2013.
“When we first found her, she kept trying to bite us,” Palmer said. “Then she peed all over us. We were like, ‘Gosh, she’s so mean!’” Palmer decided to name her after a spunky poodle from "Oliver & Company," a Disney movie she had been watching on repeat with her three-year-old son.
They glued a tiny tracking device to the back of her shell. Inside, a special tag emits a unique radio pulse which allows them to track her movements through the forest with a receiver.
“We call it a turtle treasure hunt,” Palmer said. “The receiver beeps at you. The closer you are to the turtle with the tag, the louder the beep.”
They also collected a small blood sample from Georgette and each of the other box turtles, to better understand whether urban turtles had more stress hormones in their blood than their country cousins.
‘Everybody was rooting for Georgette’
After a year of observing Georgette, the team learned just how tough she really was.
In June 2014, Georgette got sick.
It was the turtle equivalent of a head cold, caused by Mycoplasma bacteria.
Palmer and her colleagues weren’t allowed to treat Georgette, but they returned to Forest Park every day to check on the little turtle and look for signs that she was recovering.
They noticed she was acting strangely — at least by healthy turtle standards.
“Normally in the middle of the summer, a box turtle will be hunkered down in the shade to keep cool,” said Palmer. “Georgette would sit strategically in the middle of a sunny patch. It would be 100 degrees, and she would be sitting in the sun.”
It’s a phenomenon observed in other reptiles — sometimes known as “behavioral fever” — in which lizards and turtles bask in the sun to raise their body temperature and fight infection.
Sharon Deem, director of the Institute for Conservation Medicine, said Georgette “read the textbook” to fight the infection. Deem co-founded the St. Louis Turtle Tracking Project in 2013, along with her husband and fellow scientist Steven Blake.
“She knew she had to treat herself by getting hotter,” Deem said. “That’s just what reptiles do.”
But just a few months after surviving the infection, a predator attacked Georgette and bit off her front left leg.
Again, she survived.
Box turtles normally dig themselves a shallow burrow in preparation for their winter hibernation. Georgette wasn’t able to dig a burrow with only one front leg, so she wedged herself under a fallen log and some leaves.
“Everybody was rooting for Georgette,” said Deem, a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist.
Books and box turtle clubs
Georgette survived the winter — and then another.
By 2017, hundreds of St. Louis students had helped track the three-legged-turtle on class field trips.
A group of third and fourth graders at the St. Michael School of Clayton wrote and illustrated a book about Georgette, while students at Captain Elementary and Dewey International Studies Elementary formed their own “Box turtle clubs.”
“She was such a survivor to them,” said Palmer. “Every year we wondered, ‘Is she going to make it through?’ And she did.”
Georgette survived four winters with only one front leg and was halfway through her fifth when the polar vortex swept across the Midwest.
Temperatures plummeted into the single digits and, at some point, Georgette the survivor died in a quiet corner of Forest Park’s Kennedy Woods.
The Missouri Department of Conservation permitted the project as a wildlife study, but the permit does not allow researchers to treat the turtles or bring them inside.
Although it’s difficult to pinpoint her exact age, the research team estimates she was at least 15 years old when she died.
For Deem, Georgette’s death has been “a big loss.”
Over the past twenty years, she's tracked the movements of a wide range of animals across the world, including elephants and maned wolves.
“I’m always thinking about them and what their lives are today,” said Deem. “That’s the mystery and romance of this work. We’re so lucky to be able to have a window into their world.”
Thanks to Georgette and the other turtles in the project, the research team is now on the path to understanding how these charismatic reptiles move through urban environments and the different types of diseases they’re susceptible to.
“We’ve joked about pouring out a drink for Georgette,” said Palmer wryly. “Or maybe we’ll cast her radio tag in bronze.”
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