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Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Turtle Road Rescue Project

What is your first instinct when you see a turtle cross a highway, or even a country road?

(1) Do you move around it?

(2) Do you keep going forward too concerned about going out of control by swerving and hoping you don't hit it?

(3) Do you take an opportunity to use your vehicle's wheels to show off how much of a wannabe badass you think you are, or want people to think you are, regardless of how pathetic and petty such a cruel and inhuman act would be?

(4) Do you take the time to pull over and help the little fella across the road: either by picking it up and moving it, or simply helping direct traffic around it while the critter makes it slow journey across the hot summer tarmac?

Growing up in upstate South Carolina, I've seen all of these events done at one time or another, and in many unfortunate cases, I've witnessed both the actions and terrible results of numbers two and three.

When I was a little boy, I would ride my bicycle around the outskirts of town, along the bypass and back-roads. Occasionally I would see an Eastern Box Turtle, or some other species crossing the hot asphalt. I would pull over and help take the turtles cross the road before it would get run over. I would end up helping about half a dozen a year, on average. I could never stand to see one that had been run over - worse, I've seen more than just a few that had been killed, mostly by drivers who would actually go out of their way to run them over. This act is far more common place than one would realize. The results of such actions are leading to a very high mortality rate and a sharp decline in the species.

Once I found a Box Turtle that had been wounded by a careless driver. It's shell smashed and one leg crushed. I managed to find a box and took it to the vet. Eventually I helped nurse the now 3-legged box turtle back to health and then by the end of summer took him to Landsford Canal State Park and turned him loose near the Catawba River. Years later I would learn that while my actions relocating the turtle from where I found him were good intentioned, it's not always advisable for their survival...the reasons for which I will address below.

Now as an adult I continue to be a part of a very personal conservation project, one shared by others across America, to help prevent the needless injuries and deaths of these mostly harmless and inoffensive creatures. 

About American Box Turtle

The American Box Turtle is made up of four different species: carloina, ornata, nelsoni and coahulia. Of these four species, only two are commonly found and include ornata (Western Box Turtle) and carolina, of which where are six subspecies, four of which are common to the United States. These subspecies include: Terrapene carolina carolina (Common Eastern Box Turtle), Terrapene carolina trunguis (Three Toad Box Turtle), Terrapene carolina major (Gulf Coast Box Turtle), and Terrapene carolina bauri (Florida Box Turtle).

The range of the Common Eastern Box Turtle can be found from the US State of Maine to Georgia and westward to Michigan, Illinois, and Tennessee. The Three Toad Box Turtle is commonly found in Texas, Alabama and as far north as Missouri. The Gulf Coast Box Turtle is also found in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and western Florida. The Florida Box Turtle is exclusive to the State of Florida.

    The Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina).

During the year, turtles can usually be seen crossing roads between late April - early May till October. In the spring, male turtles are looking for mates and territory to call their own, while females are looking for places to nest. During late summer and fall, hatchlings are digging up from nests, seeking water and later on males and females are seeking places to hibernate for the winter. Sometimes they migrate to a more suitable spot to live.

For whatever reasons turtles are traveling, their destination and range can take them miles away from the water they live in. With more and more human development, turtles must cross more busy roads. This is one of the many reasons that these species are now listed an nearly threatened and endangered.

How You Can Help 

We can help these creatures by taking just a few minutes out of our day to protect them. But in doing so, one should be aware of several safety rules and certain protocols in dealing with turtles.

First of all, be careful. Busy streets and highways are dangerous for both the turtles and would be rescuers alike. Put on your hazard lights and pull your vehicle all the way off the road. Make certain that other drivers see you before stepping onto the road. An orange or yellow safety vest is also advisable. Thick work gloves are optional. I keep a pair in the compartment of my passenger door for just such occasions.

When picking up small, or medium-sized turtle, grasp it on either side of its shell behind the front legs. The turtle will still be able to kick at you, though many will choose to stay safely tucked in during the short time you are moving them. (I find that if you tap lightly on the top of their shell they will usually retreat long enough to move them to safety and keep you from being scratched, or bitten.)

Keep the turtle low to the ground when moving them. Small turtles have surprising strength. If a turtle manages to push free from your grip, you don't want it to fall far and injure itself. 

If you are dealing with a large turtle, like Snapping Turtles and Cooters, they can be a bit aggressive and you might not want to attempt picking it up by hand, turtles can reach almost halfway around their bodies with their neck and head. But you can still help it across the road. If you have a pickup, or larger truck, or vehicle, sometimes keeping a wide shovel could be handy in this case. Try to get the turtle on the shovel and then just drag the shovel on the pavement until you reach the other side. If you don't have a shovel, one of your car's rubber floor mats will do the same trick.

Be Careful Not To Hurt Them When You Do This! Sometimes They Will Crawl On The Shovel Themselves. 

Another thing, if you are dealing with a Snapping Turtle, or any other kind of turtle, never pick them up by the tail! You can inadvertently cause them injury to their spines this way.
One important thing, always move them in the same direction they were traveling and set them down. Do not try to relocate them. While this might seem like a good idea, it can actually cause several big problems. Turtles that are relocated and released box turtles have a very strong homing instinct and will try to return to their home territory. This frequently forces the turtle to cross roads, increasing their mortality rate. Also, relocating turtles can spread diseases from one population to another. So, if you find a turtle, just leave it where it is, even if you feel it would be better off in another location.

If you find a turtle that has been wounded by a car, carefully slide it on a shovel, floor mat, or other flat surface - do not try to pick them up by hand - and take it to the nearest veterinarian, or wildlife conservation center for treatment. When you transport them, be sure to do so in a box with a wet towel or damp paper towels to keep them moist and calm. Never transport an injured turtle in water, they could drown. Hopefully they can be saved and then returned to their home territory.

Finally, please do not take them home as pets.They need to be left in the wild. The ecosystem needs them. If you take a turtle out of the wild, then its no longer there to play its role in the environment and to breed with other turtles to sustain the population. While it may live a long life in an aquarium - the average Eastern Box Turtle can live over 100 years (WOW!) - by taking it out of the environment, you will have eliminated an animal from its population - a population that is sadly on the decline. Also, proper care for turtles is not common knowledge. Many pet turtles become sick in captivity. The best thing you can do for a turtle is leave it right where you found it.

It is not a big deal to take just a minute out of your life long enough to help the turtle population. Indeed, this is but a small part that one can do for overall turtle conservation efforts, but one that anyone can do Just remember to do it properly and help protect one of America's oldest species from the very realistic prospect of extinction. 

Thank You.

1 comment:

  1. Other important turtle facts are that ‘Turtle Island’ is what we with First People ancestry call this continent and the turtle is a power animal and spirit guide.

    Decades ago I journeyed across Turtle Island within the nomadic spirit of a man-turtle. The sun warmed my back as hind legs powered me over countless obstacles. A long, slow quest travelled prone in the man-turtle pose on a ten-speed bike.

    Thieves freed me of all possessions. The spirit of loss joined the drumbeat in my heart as man-turtle moved through lands where tribes once roamed free.

    Ocean waves greeted man-turtle beyond the giant trees that echo the name of the great Cherokee Sequoyah. In the sand that odyssey burned blood red into memory. Sky ablaze as the turtle shell dome of the sun drifted down into the Pacific.

    Another curious fact is that I hail from Worcester County Massachusetts,the turtle-people capitol of Turtle Island due to the followers of an anti-Confederate blogger named "Turtleboy". Lots of turtle-people up here, in name but not likely in spirit.

    May your Power Animals find and guide you, C.W.
    May your heart and mind be open to the powerful Guiding Spirits of Turtle Island.

    Steve Manturtle Gambone