Halloween-Ready Turtle Named Patches Wears Tiny 3D-Printed Mask Year-Round

Patches' unique mask covers an old injury, protecting the endangered turtle against infection

Photo: Amy Smotherman Burgess

It’s no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bandana, but Patches’ mini mask is still perfectly suited for her.

However, the black-breasted leaf turtle isn’t preparing for Halloween; she is recovering from a facial injury.

According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, last August, zookeepers noticed that Patches, who has lived at the Zoo Knoxville for the past ten years, had a small puncture injury on her face that was infected.

Amy Smotherman Burgess

It is unclear how the reptile was hurt, but keepers believe the zoo’s male black-breasted leaf turtle might have gotten too frisky during a mating attempt.

“Male turtles are very rambunctious when they are trying to woo a female,” said the zoo’s herpetology curator Michael Ogle.

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The infection and injury cleared up quickly with treatment, but the hole remained. While the hole didn’t bother Patches, it had a tendency to collect moss and dirt. In an attempt to prevent further infections, Patches’ caretakers routinely cleaned the old injury, but knew there must be a more permanent solution to the turtle’s issue.

After visiting Patches, University of Tennessee veterinarians Dr. Andrew Cushing and Dr. Kyle Snowdon suggested making a 3D-printed mask for the turtle to wear year-round.

After keepers confirmed that the mask would protect Patches from infection and wouldn’t hurt the reptile resident, they decided to give it a shot.

Amy Smotherman Burgess

The mask was a first for the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, which had previously 3D-printed bones for training at the school. Dr. Snowdon first created a 3D model of Patches’ skull, then after some trial and error, created a mask from the model that perfectly fit the turtle.

Amy Smotherman Burgess

“We had to look at different ways to get to it. It had to be the right size so the turtle could get its head in its shell. It could not cover the nostrils,” Snowdon said.

The final mask, made of a sturdy resin, was carefully screwed onto Patches’ face, where it also serves as a new hard palate for the animal’s mouth. Now, Patches can eat more easily, enjoy her enclosure without worrying about an infection and focus on helping her endangered species by welcoming more black-breasted leaf turtles into the world.

Black-breasted Leaf Turtle, Patches. Credit: Amy Smotherman Burgess
Amy Smotherman Burgess

“She’s doing great,” Ogle said. “She looks a little odd, but she’s still a good-looking young lady.”

Patches, who seems to be a rather confident reptile, doesn’t have to worry about standing out right now. Her permanent mask is a perfect effort-free Halloween costume.

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