The Life of Turtles

As children I think we have all been fascinated by those little beings who live in their shell; from tiny to large. They are one of my favourite reptiles out there. I have earned a nickname from a good friend, “Tula”, which means “turtle lady.”

I have rescued many, released many more and done surveys on them to help save their habitat from human destruction.

A few years ago my oldest sister founded The Six Mile Lake Conservationists Club, consisting of my two sisters my son and myself. We are supported by local cottagers etc. and we hold educational workshops and presentations, hikes and surveys. We fought to save wetlands, we won in a new road being built, in that they had to put in reptile tunnels as part of that road when built in a species at risk area, along with reptile fencing. More of these need to be built to help turtles and other wildlife species get across roads safely. The fencing guides them into the tunnel where they cross to the other side without going on the roads. And it was and is monitored, so it had to be done correctly and kept up year after year. It was a great time in my life to have been a part of so many projects to save lives and their habitats. To get to see so many species, especially turtles. Up close and personal. Loved it.

I have sat with bug suit from head to toe waiting for momma snappers to lay their eggs so that I could put protective cages over their precious cargo. Sometimes three hours later having to retreat to sit and wait in the car so that I didn’t get carried away by mosquitoes, while momma snappers and other turtles continued to dig and lay their eggs then cover and go, never to see those eggs again, never to care for or see their newborn babes hatching out. Their job was done. An incredibly strenuous job, exhausting, time consuming and one that may lead to many nest site failures because they weren’t the right place or the right temperature for her eggs. It has to be perfect or she will move on and keep trying until she finds it. It may be the right place for her when she finds it but often isn’t the right place for her eggs or for us.

Biologists and others who work with turtles and track them are trained to move eggs if need be. They must be moved by trained hands only, and I stress that 110%, otherwise the embryos could die. There is an air sac the embryo breaths with, if moved wrong, that gets destroyed and they actually will drown. And that is not our purpose. So never ever do this yourself. Ever. Plus it is illegal.  If they need to be moved by a professional team, they are taken to a facility where they are put into an incubator and monitored until they hatch, then usually overwintered until spring release, one sometimes two years later depending on species so that they have a good head start in life. Weather has a lot to do with the sex of the hatchlings, hot weather produces mostly females and cooler or cold weather mostly males, some hatchlings may overwinter as well. Midland painted turtles have an antifreeze in their system that actually protects them to overwinter in the nest. Then they emerge in the spring. As I said, incredible little beings.

 Ontario has 8 species of turtles. All 8 are now listed on the SAR list. “Species at risk” ranging from special concern to endangered. They are as follows: painted turtle, snapping turtle, spiny soft shell, stink pot or musk turtle, spotted turtle, blanding turtle, wood turtle and northern map turtle.

Work is being done every day to try to help save our turtles. But one of the biggest things that threaten them other than our roads and loss of habitat is lack of education and human ignorance/cruelty. For some reason turtles are road targets. They may be on the side of the road and people aim at them and run them over on purpose. They shoot them, they trap them. These creatures are helpless to our ways. They are good environmental indicators.

They are gentle beings, snappers do not follow you in the water and bite your toes as people fear, they are in their elements in the water, they don’t want to bother you. They just want to get away, be free. On land however, snappers are vulnerable, they may try to bite you because you are way bigger than them and you scare the crap “literally“ out of them if you try to move one.  So yes, they may try to bite, and I don’t blame them. For me when I carefully pick them up, well I usually 9 times out of 10 get peed on. Only one has ever tried to bite me. And she was covered in mosquitoes so I’m guessing I was not her only stress that day. Got her back in the water and she was a happy turtle again. As for the others peeing on me it’s expected and it’s okay, as long as I get them to safety.

If you encounter one on the road you must always first consider your safety, never ever put yourself at risk. You are numero uno, number one. You can not put yourself at risk. If it is a big snapper wear heavy gloves if possible and hold tail up and slide your other hand under the plastron or bottom shell in the center, snappers do not have a very big plastron like other turtles and are very meaty and heavy, so care must be taken to support them. A shovel or car floor mat can be used and even a sturdy stick, get the turtle to latch on the stick and guide it across the road. Never lift any turtle by its tail as that is it’s spine and injury is very likely to happen. A snapper can reach around half way down its body. So if it is a small snapper just put both hands around each side of the carapace (upper) and plastron (lower) shells and support near the back of the turtle while moving. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling a turtle or at the very least use hand sanitizer since they do carry bacteria.

Care must be taken if you find an injured one and it is important to write everything down. It must go back to the same wetland where it was found. The bacteria they can carry can be a problem if it is introduced into another wetland. So write it all down.

If you see a turtle crossing the road, move always in the direction the turtle is going or pointed. In their little brain that is the way it wants to go and it is going to go that way. So always take it in that direction. I spoke to a man once that had a turtle every year cross his property. Then one year they rebuilt their home making it bigger. The turtle didn’t know what to do, it came but there was a house in the way, what to do. Well he said it just kept trying to go through that building. So every year thereafter he picked it up and carried it around. It did what it came to do and he carried it back around upon its return and it was on its merry way. He watched over that little turtle til it no longer came.

Just a sign of how devastating it is when habitats change or worse, disappear. When a wetland is slated to be filled in I was told  “oh don’t worry they will run.” NO. They won’t “ run” crawl or anything else. They go into the wetland because this is their home, their safe place. What does a turtle do when you come up on one and scare it? It dives right back into the water. As do frogs and other wetland inhabitants. Then what happens, they get buried alive. Wood turtles are terrestrial (land) and blandings as well spend some time in water in spring then move. More protection needs to be put into place for wetlands and their inhabitants.

I was part of a wetland rescue years ago in Orillia, 52 turtles all painted, four mud puppies and a few frogs were rescued. We were allowed only one day to do this. We knew more were in there. But it was November and hibernation had begun. We were lucky and they were luckier. But do you know it took us three wetlands, that were suitable and healthy enough to find in order to release all these lives? Three. The wetland was filled in then the work was halted. For other reasons they discovered they could not build there, but that healthy wetland full of life was destroyed, just like that. Wetlands are also a sign of a healthy ecosystem for us, for the environment. A sick wetland means trouble. Its inhabitants will start getting sick and dying off. Just disappear. We need to listen to these signs.

Turtles are very strong and can endure a lot. If you see a turtle hit on the road, please, please check it. Amazingly they can survive a lot, there actually is a hospital dedicated to turtles and only turtles. Most wildlife rehabilitation facilities are able to stabilize them and then arrange to get them there, however if you can take them straight there you are saving precious time. The center is called Ontario Turtle Conservation Center and is located at 1434 Chemong Rd #4 Peterborough. 705 741 5000.

Dr. Sue Carstairs is an incredible veterinarian who operates on injured turtles there with a great bunch of volunteers to help her and keep the center running, along with donations to help look after all those turtles which some years have numbered over 600. It’s called a hospital because it has an operating room with everything we have. Blood pressure monitor, oxygen, iv, heart monitor, etc. a blood lab and more. Turtles are difficult to operate on or euthanize as they are excellent at holding their breath. So experienced hands are a must. Watch for the Center’s open house and go check them out. They are online at https://ontarioturtle.ca

Turtles range anywhere from 12 to 24 years of age depending on species before they can breed. If we lose one female it can very well take 100 years before she is replaced. Only 1% of hatchlings actually make it through their first year of life due to predation, roads and habitat loss, which is why the hospital or other organizations who incubate keep them, do it for one to two years, again depending on the species to give them a head start, and also why they have an incubation program.

Permits are needed from MNRF in order to do these projects. If you see a turtle dead on the road in the spring or early summer months please take it to the hospital. They will X-ray the turtle who could be a gravid female, eggs can be extracted and saved if timing is right. So maybe you can’t save mom but can save her eggs, anywhere from 4 to 42 approximately given the species. People say, « why are they in trouble, I see lots.” Well first of all, you’re lucky if you see lots, second it’s the females who we see mostly hit on the roads. They are the ones that are on the move to find that perfect place to lay their eggs, as I said can take upwards to 100 years to replace a lost female. Turtles can live upwards from 80 to 100 years old if they are lucky. I have seen huge turtles easily around the age of 80. But not many. So the lots of turtles you may be seeing are probably males.

There is so much I could say on my special little reptile. I have kept quite a few injured stable turtles overnight in my bathtub in a container so they are warm quiet and comfortable until the next day when we went on our long trek to Peterborough. In fact a lot of little critters have spent the night in my back porch or bathtub til the next day’s trek to rehabilitation facility’s. 24 hours is the legal limit until they must go to a facility. And you need to get them there. They all have special needs and diets, and all need that ASAP if they are to survive. I have never kept anything overnight unless it was caught late in the day and I always had instructions from the rehab facility it was going to go to the next day. And only if it was stabile; emergencies must go right away.

I only hope that one day our turtles will be sustained again, that our grandchildren will have the same pleasures as kids that we were lucky to have, to see these reptiles and learn about them. It’s a magical world out there. So many lives depend on us for survival. We must teach people the rights and wrongs, the good and the bad. To respect, to save and make habitats, not destroy them. To help, not kill. We can all co-exist with each other. Help one another to help our wildlife. Educate. The rewards are endless.

These little turtles breath air, feel pain, feel scared just like we do. They are incredible, beautiful and helpless. And I for one, will always help them if they need it and I am able. I never say no to a life in need. In the near future watch for my book. “It’s A Shell’s Life, The Life of A Turtle” by none other than me. Written, illustrated and photographs by me. It is presently being published by the Toronto Zoos Adopt a Pond program. I’m not sure when it will be released as yet but hoping this fall. Takes you through none other than, the life of a turtle. Now, what will you do next time you see a turtle?

Jennifer Howard

Naturalist/ Photographer

Volunteer Procyon Wildlife Education & Rehabilitation Facility

         

 

TURTLE TRAUMA WORKSHOP

To be held by Dr. Sue Carstairs, Executive and Medical Director of the Ontario

Turtle Conservation Centre (home of the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre)

When:  Thursday, March 30, 2017    9am-4pm

Where: Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre,

1434 Chemong Road, Selwyn, K9J 6X2

705-741-5000

Cost:  $75 per person (all proceeds donated to OTCC towards turtle care)

This workshop will be a full day program, and shall include a morning of lecture, and afternoon of hands-on practical experience.  The program includes:

  • Turtle conservation both globally and locally
  • The basics of turtle anatomy and physiology that make their approach to care different than mammals and birds
  • Ontario’s turtle species
  • Rehabilitation of turtles – stepwise approach to successful care
  • Pizza Lunch provided
  • Tour of OTCC’s facility
  • Practical hands-on guide to turtle rehabilitation, utilizing cadavers to illustrate venipuncture techniques, fracture repair techniques, and fluid therapy techniques

Please contact Dr. Sue Carstairs at , to register

Registration will be limited, to allow one-on-one instruction