By John Challis
(Editor of the Wakerobin newsletter – Muskoka Field Naturalist organization)
Gayle and I were roadside one morning in June, watching a cluster of juvenile Great Blue Herons in a pair of nests down the road from our house. When we headed back to our car, we found a Midland Painted Turtle bleeding and on its back in the middle of the road—a recent casualty.
As I flipped the victim right side up, it promptly released a stream of urine and thrashed its legs in defence. In spite of a quarter of its carapace being fractured, this was a very spirited creature intent on surviving. We carted her home and phoned the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) in Peterborough.
Our little turtle was one of several dozen on its way to Peterborough that day. A typical day in the life of the province’s only turtle trauma centre.
Executive director Dr. Sue Carstairs said they had about a thousand turtles in residence when we spoke, many of them new admissions, while several hundred others were hatchlings being raised after incubation. The centre had taken in 40 patients the evening before, and 60 in a two-day period. A veterinary surgeon often works until 9 at night, and three technicians put in a 12-hour shift daily, stabilizing, cleaning and feeding the patients.
As naturalists, we’re well aware of the serious state of decline of Ontario’s eight turtle species. Provincially, Eastern Spiny Softshell, Wood Turtle and Spotted Turtle are listed as endangered; Blanding’s Turtle is threatened. Three more—the Map, Snapping and Musk Turtle—are species of special concern. Only Painted Turtles have yet to be listed.
One female Snapping Turtle needs to produce as many as 1500 eggs in her lifetime just to replace itself and a male. Any fatality from vehicle impact jeopardizes the local population. In Muskoka, where cottage laneways and access roads weave a web of hazards for turtles, the number of reports of turtle injuries called in to the OTCC is extremely high.
Although it may be easy to point fingers, Dr. Carstairs observes that the increase in admissions to their hospital over the years is due to “more people helping out.”
Since 2009 Carstairs has overseen the surgical operations at the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre in Peterborough. The centre is the collecting point for virtually every injured turtle that gets picked up by concerned nature lovers across the province. Last year that meant she helped 1,498 cold-blooded patients heal from their injuries.
Some turtles can’t be saved, unfortunately, but even then there is hope. Females that have died from injury are often still carrying eggs that can be saved and brought to the centre for incubation. Often nests are reported in vulnerable locations—two years ago, Gayle and I watched a female snapper laying eggs at third base in the ball diamond of Washago’s Centennial Park. It takes a special provincial permit, renewed every year, to dig up the eggs. Jeff Hathaway at Scales Nature Park in Orillia has that permit and the training needed to safely retrieve and incubate eggs.
The OTCC itself incubated 6,000 eggs last year. And, said Dr. Carstairs, “we’re well on our way to 6,000 again this year.”
The centre also conducts research, studying where turtles are found and where they are most often injured. Field research is measuring the success of their “headstarting” programs; it involves tracking incubated juvenile Blanding’s turtles alongside a selection of wild-hatched juveniles of similar size. So far, the indications are that the incubated turtles show comparable levels of success to the wild population.
A select number of other released turtles are microchipped in case they are recaptured or re-injured. The weight, age and relative health of those individuals can be recorded, similar to bird banding efforts. As their resources allow them, they also support efforts to build “eco-passages” to allow turtles and other wildlife to cross roads safely.
The centre’s success relies heavily on a widespread network of scores of volunteers. About 40 veterinarians volunteer as “first responders,” fetching injured turtles and stabilizing them before having them shipped to Peterborough. Most of the first responders are friends, colleagues and former classmates of Carstairs that she recruited. Just under 700 volunteers act as ambulance drivers, shuttling the turtles from first responders to the hospital. Another 35 work at the centre, feeding, cleaning and tending the injured and hatchling turtles.
We dropped our victim off with a veterinarian in Orillia, but in Muskoka, about a dozen veterinarians are available to respond.
“The first responder is a very special person,” Carstairs said. “They have to be passionate … each clinic has to be totally on board; it has to be a really good match and partnership.”
At Gravenhurst’s Animal Hospital, Dr. Greg McWatt was a classmate of Sue Carstairs at the Ontario Veterinary College. She called him and asked if he’d be interested. His veterinary technician Candace Vlietstra immediately leapt into the project.
“She came up and demonstrated how to look after injured turtles, and she showed some pictures and had other information. And I kind of fell in love with it,” Vlietstra said. This is her third summer tending to the turtles that come to the clinic. “It’s a very rewarding experience; it really is quite a pleasure to work with Sue Carstairs and her team.” Last year the Gravenhurst Animal Hospital contributed 200 injured turtles to the number admitted the OTCC.
Her first year as a first responder connected Vlietstra with what remains her most memorable rescue. It was a very large Snapping Turtle that hadn’t been able to get to its hibernation site. It had severe frostbite over most of its body. Through the day it remained in a stupor. She took it home overnight to continue to monitor it, even giving it a name: Dudley. On the drive back to the clinic the next morning, Dudley escaped from its tote and clambered up onto the centre console behind her. “I screamed,” she recalled with a laugh. Dudley, remained an escape artist, frequently climbing out of its own confines in Peterborough. It was only a month before he was well enough to release back to its home wetland.
An injured turtle should be placed on a blanket or towel in a dry container—it helps buffer any jolts or movements that could cause painful shifting of fractures in the shell. Calls should go first to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre in Peterborough, at 705-741-5000. They will quickly check on who’s available in the area, and connect an available veterinarian to the caller to make arrangements for the drop-off. The injured patient is then assessed for their condition.
“The first thing I’ll do is get a weight for the turtle,” Vlietstra explained. “Then I get fluids into it, under the skin, and then administer pain and anti-inflammatory medication. Then I’ll tape up the shell so it won’t move around; it can be quite painful.”
“If it’s late in the day or on the weekend, I’ll take it home for a sleepover,” Vlietstra said.
Once down in Peterborough, a trained veterinary surgeon will take over. Techniques have advanced over the years. Carstairs said they use dental drills and orthopedic wire to bind broken shell parts together. Shells are bone, and bone heals just as it does in humans.
Some of the worst injuries can be to Snapping Turtles. Their heads cannot retract fully into their shells, so vehicle impacts often involve serious head trauma.
“But they also have a very tough skull,” Carstairs added. “Their ability to heal is amazing. As a biologist I find that fascinating … but it’s also really rewarding as a veterinarian.”
Healed turtles are released back into the wild in the locations they were found, usually with the individuals that found it invited to tag along. While it’s rewarding to see that a rescue has resulted in a happy ending, it’s also part of a general priority Sue Carstairs places on public awareness and education. Education may reduce the number of strikes on the highway, and bring greater public support to policies that protect turtles and their habitats.
(This article appeared in the Wakerobin Newsletter – July/August 2020. John graciously gave the MLPOA permission to post the article to our Website.)