The coin-swallowing turtle weighed down by good will

Bad luck befell a Chon Buri marine animal forced into surgery for critically amassing 5kg of cash in her stomach, tiny tokens of well-meaning merit gobbled up from her pond

Merit-making is integral to Buddhist tradition. In this belief system, practising good deeds in daily life increases one's chances of getting into heaven and enjoying a blissful afterlife.

When Om Sin, a 25-year-old female sea turtle, was first brought to Chulalongkorn University's veterinary clinic after having difficulty swimming, the connection between her condition and Buddhist ritual wasn't clear.

Later, however, the veterinary team found out that the turtle's behaviour was attributable to 5kg of coins packed into her stomach. The coins, it seemed, had come from the pond where she lives, a place where people make a habit of depositing the tiny tokens for merit-making.

The turtle was given the name Om Sin, Thai for "piggy bank", by the media.

A one-of-a-kind operation was ordered for Om Sin, funded in part by 15,000 baht worth of public donations. The seven-hour procedure saw the veterinary team get most of the coins out. However, some metal residue remains in her body, which could cause long-term harm.

Om Sin's case has made people think twice about how their good deeds can negatively affect others.

TOUGH TO SWALLOW

Om Sin's story led people to react in awe and confusion -- how did those coins end up there in the first place? But for Prof Nantrika Chansue, the director of the Veterinary Medical Aquatic Research Centre (VMARC), the discovery didn't come as much of a surprise.

A veterinarian by trade, she's seen all sorts of objects pass through animal bodies -- hair clips, pens, balloons, rubber and baby diapers.

This was the first time, however, she had uncovered metal coins.

Besides the sheer volume of them, she was stunned at how they had gone undigested for so long. Some had clustered together to form one large chunk of metal.

"I've operated on sharks, whales and many other types of marine animals before," explained Prof Nantrika. "But this was one of the most unique cases I've ever had."

Prof Nantrika heads up the VMARC team, based at Chulalongkorn University, which works alongside the Royal Thai Navy's Sea Turtles Conservation Centre in Sattahip, Chon Buri. She generally deals with cases of sick animals that are referred to her by the navy.

"Marine animals, both out in nature and in captivity, generally arrive at our clinic showing symptoms such as being unable to eat or swimming abnormally," said Prof Nantrika.

Om Sin was brought in to Prof Nantrika by the navy from a public park pond in the Sriracha district of Chon Buri, where visitors can go every day and toss in coins for good luck.

"When Om Sin arrived, she looked tired and couldn't swim much," said Prof Nantrika. "I thought it might be because of her weight. So I ordered a CT scan to see what exactly was going on inside her body."

That's when the team made a shocking find -- a large chunk of coins, measuring 20x23cm in length and width, and 20cm in depth, in her stomach, alongside some spare change in her intestines.

Prof Nantrika ordered surgery straightaway to save the turtle's life. For two weeks, Om Sin was fed nutrient-rich food and medication to strengthen her for the high-risk procedure.

MISSION MADE POSSIBLE

Before the surgery, Om Sin was given anaesthesia. As intended, the turtle fell asleep and fast. But Prof Nantrika thought her quick reaction could be an indicator of feeble health.

"When a human or animal given anaesthesia falls asleep that quickly, it often means their liver isn't working well," Prof Nantrika explained.

For the procedure, surgeons lifted Om Sin into a tilting position, held in place by tape, since lying face-up would be too risky for her cracked ventral shell. After carving a 10cm skin incision on her underside, they started extracting all 915 coins from her stomach.

"I don't know how the turtle managed to survive as long as it did," said Prof Nantrika.

"The coin cluster was so heavy that we couldn't even lift it up. The loose coins had become stuck together in one big lump."

By the end of the surgery, most of the coins were successfully extracted. But the team still feared that the turtle's liver could later fail from having sheltered so many toxic materials.

"We found that, for many of the coins, the designs had already been dissolved," said Prof Nantrika. "What this tells us is that the turtle's body at least tried to digest these coins. It also means that the heavy metal from these coins is now circulating around her liver, which can be dangerous. We'll have to monitor her closely in the time following the operation."

Om Sin is now in recovery mode, taking a range of medication. Some coins remain in her intestines but over time natural digestion processes are expected to expel them.

DOING GOOD DEEDS

Throwing coins into fish ponds for good luck has long been customary to Thai culture. The act is a common sight at temples.

Sinchai Chaojaroenrat, a philosophy and religion scholar at several universities, says that Thais enjoy doing merit-making with coins since they are the smallest units of money.

"Coins are almost worthless when compared to banknotes," Mr Sinchai explained. "That's why people usually use coins to make merit. Many temples use coins as gimmicks to encourage people to make merit, such as placing them in monks' alms bowls, marked based on the day you were born, or throwing coins into fish ponds for good fortune. It has become a form of Buddhist entertainment."

Merit-making enjoys a long history in Thai culture, but the methods of doing so have changed over time.

What began as making simple food offerings to monks has evolved into a whole plethora of activities that infuse old forms of worship with a fresh sense of fun.

Tossing coins in the water is popular for its symbolic associations with fortune telling. When people ask fortune tellers questions about their future, coins can be used to make prediction or grant wishes.

"The fish and turtles living in temple ponds are small and we never hear about any of them getting sick from eating coins," said Mr Sinchai. "That's why we all think it's OK to continue tossing in our coins. Generally, it doesn't do harm to anything. Gathering merit and having some lighthearted fun at the same time -- who wouldn't want to do that?

"We can't stop people from practising their beliefs and traditions. The sea turtle case that recently happened might be a rare circumstance. The turtle is so big -- I can see how it managed to swallow so many coins."

Prof Nantrika told Spectrum that it is common for sea turtles to eat hard objects such as coral reef or the shells of various marine animals. Their bodies are able to digest these objects relatively easily since they are all natural. But coins do not fall into this category.

"I believe Om Sin mistook the coins for a fish with shiny scales," said Prof Nantrika. "That's why she ate so many of them. I want her story to be a warning for Thai people who like to throw things into the water -- not just coins but any other form of rubbish. I can't tell you how often we have to perform surgery to remove plastic bags from marine animals.

"Please think twice before throwing anything in the water. This is the home of marine animals, and they can't tell the difference between edible and inedible objects.

''I want Om Sin's case to serve as an example of how dangerous it can be for animals when we don't stop to consider their environmental conditions and safety. One innocent life was almost taken away by a negligent act. Usually, it's just by tossing rubbish -- in this case, it was merit-making."

SPARE CHANGE: Coins weighing 5kg were removed from Om Sin's stomach. She seemed to have swallowed coins thrown in her pond for good luck. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

KEEP SWIMMING: The turtle underwent a seven-hour operation to extract the swallowed money. PHOTOS: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

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