Hermie the Turtle's little defective beak made meal time a struggle. Unable to close his mouth completely, the tiny 20-gram reptile's very existence was at stake.
But today, this map turtle has a new lease on life thanks to the work of two doctors who outfitted young Hermie with braces. Now, some are calling the orthodontic work a Christmas miracle.
''I've worked on animals before but nothing this small,'' said Dr. Peter M. Virga, a Watertown dentist who along with veterinarian Jeffrey G. Baier performed the unique procedure.
After receiving Hermie in May, zookeepers at the New York State Zoo in Watertown's Thompson Park noticed the turtle was having difficulty eating. Medical exams then showed Hermie's lower jaw growing downward.
''He may have adapted to eat like this, or he may have not made it,'' Baier said.
Turtles, who are toothless, use their beaks to break food down before grinding it with the plates in their mouths.
After Baier injected Hermie with two anesthetics Wednesday morning, Virga inserted four pins into the turtle's jaws, according to the Watertown Daily Times which published an account of Hermie's ordeal Thursday.
During a meeting with reporters, the doctors placed the immobile turtle, believed to be between 2 and 3 years old, on a table. As Baier held Hermie's head, Virga placed two rubber orthodontic elastics _ the same kind used by children with braces _ on the pins across the turtle's mouth.
While Hermie recuperates, zookeepers will remove the rubber bands once a day to allow the turtle to eat. In keeping with the spirit of Christmas, the doctors chose red and green rubber bands for Hermie's beak.
''It's very exciting and I was glad to help,'' said Virga, who's performed root canal surgery on dogs.
Baier's wife, Angela, the zoo's executive director, said she was thrilled such a small zoo could take part in such a rare procedure.
''Miracles happen this time of the year,'' she said. ''Hopefully his beak will be fixed.''
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.