COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - There's an elderly Riverbanks Zoo resident shell-ebrating a new lease on life this summer, and he goes by the name Blueberry.
Blueberry is a more than 30-year-old pancake tortoise. They're native to Africa, and Blueberry was the 62nd animal to make his way through the gates of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in the 1980's. And – he's hangin' on to his residence like the relative that never leaves.
And thirty years is a long time to get along with your neighbors. Or - so says the hole that spans from Blueberry's sinuses into the roof of his mouth. Keepers said it's likely from a sparring match with another tortoise.
"When we first discovered this problem, his sinuses were unfortunately packed with hay and a bunch of other food material," said staff veterinarian, Paige Brock. "You can imagine having all that gunk in your sinuses… didn't feel super pleasant."
It became a system of trial and a whole lot of error for Brock. After several fails, she decided it was time to reach out for help.
"If we weren't able to control food being pushed up into that area, we were starting to have to talk about his quality of life," Brock said. "It was a serious thing. It might seem like a minor thing, but it was potentially becoming a life-threatening problem."
Brock reached out to Palmetto Health USC-Dentistry to see if dentists and prosthodontists there could help her come up with a solution for old man Blueberry.
"It really was one of those things where we were looking for a lifesaving change here and that's what they were able to provide to us," Brock said.
Dr. Cindy Nichols, a prosthodontist with the group at Palmetto Health USC-Dentistry, worked with zoo staff and a lab in Georgia to help come up with a prosthetic obturator that could be used inside the cavity spanning Blueberry's sinuses. The team created impressions and sent off the molds for a permanent structure.
It's the one that Brock and her veterinary technician have been removing and replacing for the past three months – and it's working.
Brock and her tech place Blueberry under general anesthesia before removing, cleaning and replacing the obturator every few weeks.
"We feel like we've saved Blueberry's life by closing the hole," said Dr. Nichols.
It's a sentiment the vets at Riverbanks are certainly seeing in real time.
"All of the inflammation has gone down, it's a nice healthy pink color and you can see some of the sinus spaces," said Brock. "That sinus headache should be all gone down."
So – why the name Blueberry, you might be wondering? Just ask Brock.
"When you have to anesthetize a pancake tortoise every day for 3-6 months you have to come up with something exciting," she said. "I wanted to be able to say: 'Can someone please bring me a blueberry pancake?!'"
To Brock's knowledge, this is the first time a procedure like this has been performed on a pancake tortoise.