Veterinarians use 3-D printing to help Patches the turtle eat at Zoo Knoxville

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Patches, a turtle at Zoo Knoxville, had a big problem. But local veterinarians solved it, using 3-D printing to create a tiny mask for the little lady.

Patches came to Zoo Knoxville in 2009 as part of the Species Survival Plan, which is a network of zoos across the country dedicated to saving a variety of animals from extinction.

About a year ago, veterinarians found a hole in the 30-year-old black-breasted leaf turtle's nostril. The zoo said it stemmed from an infection that covered a big portion of her face, and that it was affecting her ability to eat because food would get lodged in the hole.

The University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine was called in to help. Patches' veterinary team at UTCVM, Dr. Andrew Cushing and Dr. Kyle Snowdon, took CT scans to help them design a mask. In September, Cushing and Snowdon used a 3-D printer to create the mask from those scans. They also used a dental resin, just like what dentists use for to fill a cavity, to fill the hole in her nostril and attached it to the mask with a screw.

Since creating the mask, Zoo Knoxville officials said Patches does not have any problems eating anymore.

“Keeping Patches healthy and thriving so she can continue to be a part of the breeding population for this endangered turtle is important,” said Michael Ogle, curator of herpetology and ornithology at Zoo Knoxville. “We are fortunate to have the UTCVM as our partner in providing our animals with the best possible care, which in this case involved cutting edge technology.”

According to the Zoo's news release, the black-breasted leaf turtle is endangered because poachers are targeting them illegally. They're native to northern Vietnam and southeastern Asia areas.

Visitors can see Patches at Zoo Knoxville. It's open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily.