You see a turtle in distress. What should you do?

Across the province, turtle populations are threatened by car accidents and habitat loss. The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre is working to save them — and it wants you to help save them, too
By Diane Peters - Published on Jul 29, 2019
a turtle with bandages on its shell
This year, the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, in Peterborough, has already admitted more than 1,000 injured turtles. (Diane Peters)

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PETERBOROUGH — When turtles get hurt in southern Ontario, many of them end up at the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, in Peterborough. More are being treated there than ever before: in 2009, the centre admitted 80; last year, 945; this year, there have already been 1,171. That’s a lot of turtles getting hurt — mainly by cars — and needing medical attention.

“It’s not that more turtles are getting hit; it’s that more are getting help,” says Sue Carstairs, executive and medical director of the OTCC and a seasoned pro when it comes to turtle surgery.

Kelly Wallace, who runs the education-oriented Think Turtle Conservation Initiative, agrees that increased public awareness is behind the rise in reptile patients. “It’s good news: they’re not being left on the roadside. People now know what to do,” says Wallace, who’s based in Bancroft and delivers talks about turtles at farmers’ markets and public libraries across the province. “Their best chance for surviving is being brought to the centre.”

Ontario is home to eight turtle species. All of them are listed as at risk federally, and all but the painted turtle have a designation in the province, too. About a third of all the province’s turtles live in central Ontario.

Populations have dwindled because of road accidents — male turtles travel extensively in the spring to find mates and remain on the move all summer, too. Females head out to nest in June and July, often using the side of the road as a nesting ground. Young hatchlings start getting mobile in the fall.

Turtles also get hurt by boats, fish hooks, and dogs — and they can fall prey to hunters and poachers. Until two years ago, it was legal to hunt snapping turtles in Ontario.

When an adult turtle dies, it’s a big deal. While they have long lifespans — snapping turtles can live to be about 100 — it takes some species as long as 25 years to be ready to reproduce. Only 1 per cent of turtle eggs and hatchlings survive. “It can take a turtle as long as 60 years to have a hope of reproducing itself,” says Carstairs. While this worked, on balance, for thousands of years, human activity around turtle habitats has made their populations unsustainable.

So what should you do if you see a turtle in distress? The centre recommends that you contact it — if you’re close by, you can then bring the turtle in. (The OTCC website has some pointers: put the turtle in a well-ventilated plastic container with a lid — they can climb — note precisely where you found it, and, if it’s a snapping turtle, don’t hold it near the head.) The centre also operates 30 Turtle First Response Centres across the province, staffed by trained vets who can stabilize ill turtles. They often call on the Turtle Taxi service — a network of 1,000 or so animal-loving volunteers willing to drive the hurt reptiles, sometimes in a relay, to Peterborough.

Once at the OTCC, Carstairs and her four staff — who are joined during the summer months by a handful of college veterinary-technician students — will get to work, giving it fluids and medication, stitching up injuries, and wiring and taping its shell.

Staff also harvest the eggs from female turtles and store them safely for the next 45 to 90 days. When they start hatching in August, Carstairs says, it sounds like popcorn popping. Hatchlings will then spend the winter in the centre — last year, the OTTC raised 900 turtle babies — and, starting as early as the following spring, they’ll be released in same location their mother was found.

“We return them when they’re not so bite-sized,” says Carstairs. Raccoons, fish, and other predators eat turtle eggs and hatchlings. So, while the OTTC’s main role is saving the lives of individual adult turtles, it also helps the next generation get a head start.

The OTCC also runs a field-research program that tracks the health of released turtles over time. Even hatchlings who spend a year or so in the centre can return to the wild, Carstairs says, as they’re unaffected by the time they’ve spent with humans.

The 6,500-square-foot facility features a visitors’ centre and back rooms that serve as a surgery, ICU, hatchery, and recovery space — right now, there are turtles swimming around in plastic tubs in every corner, including in what is supposed to be the office. “It’s a bit of a chaotic time here,” Carstairs admits. Thanks to the centre’s busy spring and summer, some of last winter’s hatchlings still haven’t gotten a ride back to their home habitat.

Many of the turtles who had surgery in the spring will be ready for release soon. Then the babies will hatch, and the OTCC will be packed again. “We’re always full,” says Carstairs. “It’s just a different group that’s hanging out with us.”

While the OTCC’s medical work is vital, Carstairs says, it’s the centre’s education and awareness work that she hopes will help make the biggest difference for Ontario’s turtles.

At the facility’s indoor and outdoor education areas, visitors can read about turtles and conservation, learn how to help them cross the road, and see live reptiles — including Andrea, a blind Blanding’s turtle who hangs out in an outdoor pond. And the OTCC is taking other steps to make sure Ontarians can help protect turtles and preserve their habitats and nests. It sells a nest protector for $25; it covers the nest from predators but lets the sun shine in and allows babies to make their way out after they’ve hatched. Wallace created a “Watch 4 Turtles” sign that people can display to encourage motorists to remain aware. 

Carstairs says groups like hers very much need direct donations to stay afloat and recommends that people support initiatives such as turtle corridors — underground tunnels that reduce road injuries and deaths for these and other creatures.

She also warns against getting a turtle as a pet, as doing so supports the poaching industry. And if you’re looking to rid yourself of a pet turtle, she says, never attempt to return it to the wild — it may not be native to the region, and it won’t be able to survive away from its home habitat.

“We believe education drives conservation forward,” Carstairs says. “When you get the public behind you, you can do so much more.”

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