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The Shell Game

Turtles have been around 220 million years, surviving five major extinction episodes. But they’re still no match for roads and motor vehicles. An Ontario facility is helping make sure they survive these as well

Even at 80 kilometres an hour, I recognize the mossy, serrated dome on the pavement ahead. Braking carefully, I pull off and snap on my hazard lights. Fortuitously, the snapping turtle is in my lane facing the shoulder; moving it off the road in the direction it’s headed shouldn’t be difficult. 

As snapping turtles go it’s medium-sized, shell length about 25 centimetres. Stopped and looking around, it appears spooked by the rumble of passing traffic. Or the alien nature of asphalt—literally another planet to an aquatic creature. I gently prod the animal’s rear in hope it resumes progress across the remaining few metres. Instead, it pulls back its head with a hiss. Plan B: carry it across.

Unlike most turtles, whose scope of defense is firmly out front, snappers can extend a snake-like neck sideways to nip the unwary, so when I do pick it up I stay behind, grasping the base of its tail with one hand and slipping the other beneath its armoured belly, lifting it as you would a pizza. I place it on the sandy shoulder, which feels familiar enough to the animal to flick on an internal switch: it bolts down the embankment, splashing into the watery umbra of a cattail marsh.

Turtlepalooza 

Every year, thousands of turtles are hit by vehicles while crossing Canada’s roads. And while this one might have made it safely without intervention, there’s some irony: I encountered it while en route to a place of great fortune for its less-fortunate brethren—the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC).

Turtles are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates. Almost half of some 300 species worldwide are threatened with extinction. Topping the list of causes is habitat loss and fragmentation—usually by roads—which interfere in everything from foraging and hibernation, to nesting and gene flow. The result is shrinking, vulnerable populations whose decline is further exacerbated by vehicular and watercraft mortalities, poaching for the pet and food trades, fishing bycatch, and egg consumption by predators whose unnaturally high numbers are subsidized by the presence of human communities (i.e. raccoons, skunks, foxes).

To help reverse this trend, the OTCC takes a three-pronged approach to its mandate of protecting and conserving turtles and their habitat: foremost is housing a world-leading hospital that treats, rehabilitates, and releases injured turtles back to the wild, as well as hatching eggs from females killed on roads; second is conducting field research to further conservation initiatives; third is running a comprehensive education and outreach program. I hope to learn more about the first aspect after an introduction to the latter.

Located on the outskirts of Peterborough, the OTCC’s nondescript one-storey building hardly presents as a heralded roadside attraction—yet it’s a popular stop for organized groups and walk-ins. I mingle among the latter as I step into the bright reception area on a late-May morning in 2019. 

In one corner are items for purchase, on the walls, posters and displays; the remainder of the space is dominated by gurgling artificial pools featuring well-scrubbed turtles who, for various reasons, can’t be released back to the wild. These spiffy residents, now serving educational and outreach purposes, include Paddy (Snapping Turtle), Andrea (Blanding’s Turtle), Mappy (Northern Map Turtle), Rusty (Wood Turtle), Shellbie and Picasso (Midland Painted Turtles) and Zig and Zag (Eastern Musk Turtles). Absent from this all-Canada species roster are the Spotted Turtle and Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle, which visitors learn about soon enough from an accompanying abundance of interpretive material.

Flowing along in a contagion of excited kids who are trying to see everything at once. My own Turtlepalooza is cut short by affable staffer Wendy Baggs, who steers me back outside to a quieter enclosure that features several ponds, a garden that grows greens to feed turtles, and various stewardship modules covering pollinators, invasive species, and wetland preservation. Come warmer weather, she explains, the OTCC’s celebrity turtles will reside out here as the stars of daily tours.

“This is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done,” says Baggs, a multi-career retiree who found her true calling as one of the centre’s volunteer “turtle drivers”—a sort-of ambulance service shuttling injured reptiles to the facility from across Southern Ontario. Now she’s the OTCC’s Education and Outreach Director, overseeing its parade of curious visitors, as well as driving up to five hours to conduct presentations—even in winter. “We reached 15,000 people last year,” she notes proudly. “Few people knew the differences between species or how many exist in Ontario. Seniors would often say, ‘I’ve lived here this long and had no idea…,’ while kids were most enthused to learn how to move turtles off the road.”

Our last stop is a room stacked with egg incubators and year-old snapping turtle hatchlings, all of which now crowd to the edge of their tanks, heads stretching up in Pavlovian unison, certain I’m bearing food. Raising eggs and hatchlings is part of hospital business, but also figures heavily into the centre’s education (everyone loves baby animals) and research aspects—like a radio-tracking program in which the movements of wild-hatched Blanding’s turtles are being compared with those hatched at the OTCC. So far, growth and survival rates of OTCC-hatched turtles appear to be on par with their wild cousins—a solid endorsement of its program objectives. 

Though small, the hatching room is central to this labyrinthine complex, and looking out at the rest of the facility through its several portals I spy wall-to-wall turtles—in bins and tubs and pans, stacked on shelves, and, at this time of year, lining hallways and constellating the floor everywhere. It’s the perfect segue to my hospital handoff.

The path to healing 

After the temperature ups-and-downs of spring, when the weather warms up for good, turtles start to move on the landscape. Early on it’s mostly males—leaving hibernacula, bound for summer foraging grounds or seeking mates—while later, in June, it’s females looking to nest. Whatever the reason in forsaking a water body for land, roads are often in the way. Despite a turtle shell being a 220-million-year-old evolutionary marvel of engineering, it’s no match for any kind of vehicle, and the damage done to individuals that don’t die outright is gut-wrenching. Summer 2018 saw almost 1,000 turtles pass through the OTCC. With 2019’s much cooler spring, the carnage started later but increased faster. By May 24, the OTCC had admitted 141 turtles; three days later, that number has climbed to 230.

When I meet Dr. Sue Carstairs, the diminutive, bright-eyed dynamo at the centre of this power station, it’s hard to square her upbeat composure with the surrounding horrors as she leads me through the packed emergency ward, which looks exactly as it sounds—a chaos of blood and bone and entrails. One large snapper splayed and unmoving in a tub is literally split down the middle with a rubicund gash, ribcage exposed and organs visible. It’s hard to imagine it’s still alive. “They’re quiet like that for a while,” says Sue. “But they’ve all been given pain medication, fluids and antibiotics if necessary. He’ll actually probably be OK.”

Working as a wildlife rehab veterinarian, Carstairs had longed for a project that did more than generate feel-good PR—she wanted to have population-level impacts. Having turtles as a kid and working with them in private practice and animal shelters, she joined what was originally called the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre in 2009 as Executive and Medical Director. Operating since 2002, the centre was at a crossroads: It needed to either grow substantially or dissolve. When Carstairs arrived, the fatigued founders didn’t even have a financial strategy, despite being in the process of moving from free space to a rented unit where operational costs would soon soar from $8,000 to $60,000 annually. “I had to learn grant-writing quickly,” recalls Carstairs of her indoctrination into fundraising. 

That wasn’t all. With no experience in road ecology, big-picture wildlife diseases, or incubating and hatching eggs, Carstairs attended many conferences, paying her way to all. “I never unpacked my bag the first few years. If I was going to steer the ship I had to learn about all these things.”

She was a quick study. The Toronto Zoo also helped with certain aspects, and she met generous biologists who mentored her on fieldwork. Under her direction, the OTCC has grown at an unprecedented rate: public awareness is up, capacity is full, and it’s staffed by five regular, full-time paid staff (including Carstairs), nine with seasonal contracts, and 35 volunteers. Though much of her time is given to directorial and fundraising efforts, offering consults to people from around the world on how to save injured turtles, and recruiting and training fellow vets from around Ontario to do their own turtle work, clinical duties dominate at this time of year.

On a weekend like last, with 50 turtles a day incoming, technicians perform triage and make operable animals comfortable and ready for anesthetic and surgery. When Carstairs arrives, she stays until it’s all done—often up to 10 hours at a go.

A variety of techniques and material are employed in repairs, including epoxy and zap-straps (previously it was wire and screws). Turtle shells are bone, so the minimum time to heal an uncomplicated crack with no spinal injury is eight to 12 weeks. Though mammal and bird bones heal faster given their higher metabolisms, Carstairs still describes turtles’ healing ability as mind-blowing. 

“It’s slow, but incredible—they actually regenerate spinal-cord tissue. When I started here I couldn’t have even imagined the things they routinely recover from,” she says. “It might take some of them years to get healthy, but you have to be patient. Before they leave they have to function like a normal wild turtle, so some require rehab. Our physiotherapist, Carol Small, modifies what she does with humans for turtles, working on range-of-motion, building little ramps and other tricks to get them to use legs they’re otherwise prone to tuck under their shell—it really helps with outcomes.”

When I’d first called Carstairs in early 2019, despite releasing more than 2,000 turtles in 2018 there were still 896 in the centre slated to return to the wild. Readying them involves removing all repair material, ensuring they’re feeding well, implanting ID microchips that will yield information on movements, and confirming return locations. By the time of my visit they’d already sent 300 back out, staggering outflow so that the volunteers who return them to their places of origin don’t all show up at once—especially during this critical time when injured turtles are also arriving in large numbers. 

When I check back in late September, Carstairs is about to embark on a well-earned vacation. “It was an unbelievable year,” she begins. “We’re closing in on 1,500 turtles for the season, and somewhere over 6,000 eggs hatching—I lost count a while back.”

Again, she emphasizes that despite its wide-ranging work in medical reconstruction, rehabilitation, hatching, research and education, the OTCC is striving toward a single, unified objective: increasing awareness of the many challenges facing Ontario’s turtles and inspiring individuals to act, even if it’s just keeping your eyes peeled while driving—or stopping to move a vulnerable ancient soul off the road.

Moving turtles: https://vimeo.com/94872148

OTCC: https://ontarioturtle.ca


This story originally appeared in Canadian Geographic on Oct. 22, 2020, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.