Operation box turtle: Waynesville vet works to give baby turtles a leg up
Joel Harrington has always been a fan of turtles. Of all animals, really — he is a veterinarian — but Harrington has had at least one pet turtle ever since he was a kid. And if the collection of Eastern box turtles covering his lawn on a recent sunny afternoon is any indication, the affinity hasn’t faded.
Though it has shifted. With the exception of two, the 18 turtles now in his care aren’t pets. They’re wild animals. Or at least they will be, once they get big enough and strong enough for Harrington to deem them ready for release.
“I found a system that keeps them happy, healthy, growing — and still pretty wild,” Harrington said. “They’re not as shy (as a wild turtle), but they still wouldn’t hesitate to run away and disappear and never want to see another human in their life.”
Which is a good thing, because Harrington’s turtles have a monumental task ahead of them post-release — to go forth and thrive, bolstering their species’ long-term odds of survival. Box turtles, which are named the state reptile, have it rough. Run-ins with cars and well-meaning people who try making them into pets, as well as diminishing habitat, are taking their toll.
Becoming the turtle guy
Those factors are what got Harrington into the business of turtle husbandry in the first place. It began about seven years ago, soon after he moved the mountains to work at the Animal Hospital of Waynesville. He was driving along and noticed a turtle crossing the road. He took it home as a pet but soon realized that wasn’t the responsible thing to do — it was a wild animal. He returned it to where he’d found it.
Over the years, box turtles would make their occasional way into the vet office. Pet turtles who were sick or dying well before their time, wild turtles who’d been smashed by car tires while crossing the road. Harrington took their reptilian woes to heart.
After contemplating what he could do to help, he came to figure out that the eggs inside a dead turtle — as long as it had died within the day — could be surgically removed and incubated to hatch just fine.
“I did it by experiment at first,” he said, “and they all hatched.”
As it turns out, nearly all the turtles crawling on the roads during the peak season in May are females, full of eggs and looking for a place to lay them. When the pregnant turtle is crushed, so are the chances of survival for the two to seven eggs she carries inside.
The eggs have a high fertility rate, so of those that Harrington manages to save and place into his Styrofoam chicken egg incubator, nearly all hatch. It takes about two months or so for the eggs to break into tiny baby turtles, at which point fall is on the horizon, shortly to be followed by winter. So, while it would be fine to release the turtles as little as a week after they hatch, Harrington usually holds onto them through the winter to keep them warm and fed during the harsher season. In the wild, few turtles survive their first winter.
By springtime, they’ve tripled or quadrupled in size, their shells have hardened and are able to close in case of danger — baby turtles can’t close their shells — and they have a much higher chance of survival.
“My educated opinion is that in the wild maybe one out of 40 hatchlings is going to survive to adulthood, but if they’re a little bigger, a little stronger and they actually have gained the ability to close their shell, their odds probably go from 1 in 40 to 50-50, as long as they can avoid human hazards,” Harrington said.
He’ll usually release one batch in the spring and another batch in the fall, with the turtles that have done the most growing over the winter going first. Some get set free near where their mother was found. Others simply go to places that look like great turtle habitat, away from busy roads and development.
Bolstering a population
The point of all this is to help strengthen a population that’s been struggling. Box turtles aren’t threatened or endangered, but they are listed as a North Carolina species of special concern. Their biggest threats come from people — via collisions with cars or when people take them to keep as pets or relocate them from the area they know.
“In the wild, once they reach adulthood they have almost no threats to them in nature,” Harrington said. “They can survive fires and floods and drought and every single predator that’s out there. If it wasn’t for people, adult turtles would have very few worries.”
But they’re slow reproducers, with females laying an average of four eggs each year. If Harrington’s estimation that one in 40 of those eggs will survive to become an adult turtle is correct and the female turtle has 40 years of healthy reproduction, then she’ll create only four adult turtles in her lifetime.
“They don’t have an ability to come back from major losses,” Harrington said.
Enter Operation Box Turtle.
It really is quite the operation. Harrington has had as many as 45 turtles at a time before, with each of the babies kept in its own individual bowl, wading-depth — if you’re a turtle — water kept within a specific temperature range.
“In nature when they hatch they all go their separate directions and never see each other,” Harrington said. “In captivity if you place them together, they often view tails and toes as food.”
Once they get to be about 2, they realize that other turtles’ toes are not food and can start to share space. But Harrington doesn’t typically keep them that long.
As far as what is proper food for turtles, the list is long. They’re omnivores, and variety is the key. For Harrington’s turtles, the staples include commercial turtle pellets, dark leafy greens, carrots, sweet potatoes and treats like blueberries and strawberries. They also get insects like crickets, pill bugs and earthworms found in the backyard. All that variety helps increase their chance of success after release.
“Otherwise they get hooked on one thing,” Harrington explained. “If I fed them only pellets they wouldn’t want anything else, no matter how good it was.”
He’s got the feeding down to a science. It happens every other day, requiring a few minutes to set up the turtles’ feeding stations, an hour of elapsed time to let them eat and then a few minutes to clean everything up. Once or twice a week, he takes the whole ensemble outside to let the turtles enjoy some fresh air and sunshine.
Aiming for conservation
It is a commitment. But Harrington follows through partially out of a sense of responsibility.
“I like all wildlife,” Harrington said. “I’ve raised possums and all kinds of orphaned baby birds and mammals. But when it comes to turtles, there’s not many people that are doing it and it requires some knowledge that a lot of people don’t have. I kind of feel like if I’m not helping, there aren’t many people that are helping.”
But also, he just really likes turtles. They’re docile, not aggressive, and each one is unique and important to the species’ survival.
“They can be personable,” Harrington said. “I have one turtle who really likes it when you scratch his shell. He starts to move back and forth to encourage you to scratch his shell. I have several that run to you because they think you have a treat for them. But I have just as many who would bite your finger, thinking you’re a human food dispenser.”
Harrington says he doesn’t see himself ever wanting a box turtle as a long-term pet — their needs can be difficult to meet, and he just believes they live a more enriched life in the wild. But he’s got a few turtles he knows quite well. Bernard, a 15-year-old common musk turtle, has been with him since his first year of college — he didn’t know she was a female when he named her — and he has a 1-year-old three-striped mud turtle that a client at the animal hospital found in his yard. It’s not a native species, so there’s no telling how it wound up out there. He also has partial custody of two male cooter turtles, which live in a friend’s first-grade classroom during the school year and with him in the summer.
Ultimately, though, Harrington has two dogs to deliver the satisfaction of a pet that comes when called and shows emotion. The goal of his turtle operation has always been conservation.
“They are definitely declining in the area,” Harrington said, “and unless we protect natural habitats and we try to limit our impact on wild turtles, they’re not going to be around in the future.”
Help the turtles
During May and into June, female turtles will be on the move in search of the perfect place to lay their eggs, crossing roads and lawns in the process. It can be a dangerous time for the shelled creatures, with mortality increasing due to collisions with cars or run-ins with people looking for a new pet. Here are some tips from veterinarian Joel Harrington on how you can help the turtles in your area:
• Watch out for turtles while driving. If you see one on the road, find a safe place to pull over, pick the turtle up and place it on the side of the road in the direction it was headed.
• Mow the lawn midday, not early in the morning or late at night when turtles are most active. Keep an eye out to avoid mowing over them.
• Don’t move a turtle you’ve found any further than a few feet in any direction. Turtles have specific home ranges, and moving one as little as 100 meters can severely disorient it.
• Leave turtles in the wild. Their needs are hard to meet in captivity, and most captive turtles live for years when they should live for decades.
• Limit pesticide use. Pesticides can harm both turtles and their food sources.
The doctor is in
If you come across a dead or dying turtle on the road, take it by the Animal Hospital of Waynesville. Even if the turtle can’t be saved, the eggs it’s carrying often can.