Massachusetts is home to 10 species of land turtles and half of them are threatened, endangered or of special concern. They range in size from the 4” Bog turtle to the Snapping turtle which can grow up to 20” long. The Cape Wildlife Center will see all of these species during the course of the year. The Summer months are particularly busy because native turtles off all shapes and sizes are on the move. If you can believe it, we have admitted over 30 injured turtles to our hospital in just the last 6 weeks! (in photo a Common Snapping Turtle that was admitted to our hospital.)
While all wildlife should be left alone, for the endangered and threatened species it is illegal to kill, harass, collect or possess this turtle. These include the Blanding’s turtle, the Bog turtle, the Diamond-backed terrapin, the Eastern Box turtle, and the Northern Red-Bellied Cooter. Their numbers have decreased due to loss of habitat, human-wildlife conflict, and illegal pet trade trafficking.
Turtles will go into brumation in the colder months (a special type of hibernation) and re-emerge in the Spring ready for a mate. It is this time of year that we get many turtles hit by cars that are trying to cross roads to get to their home territory to lay their eggs. If you see a turtle crossing a road, you can carefully help them along by pushing them with a broom or piece or cardboard if you are not able to safely pick them up. All turtles can bite, so use care. Always move them in the direction they are going. If you come upon an injured turtle on the road or elsewhere, carefully put them in a box or bin on a moist towel. Do not touch or move any injured parts. Always protect yourself by wearing heavy gloves if necessary. Many turtles with cracked shells can be repaired. Our veterinarian can wire their shells together under anesthesia and clean and repair lacerations. They then are put on pain medications, antibiotics and stay with us until the injuries have healed.
Many of the injured turtles we get in also have eggs in their abdomen. We x-ray all turtles to see if they have any. Generally, we will induce egg laying and incubate the eggs. This relieves some of the stress on the healing turtle.
Turtles also come in frequently as a result of an animal attack or can be entangled in fishing line or have hooks embedded in them. Traumatic amputations of their limbs is a regular occurrence. Most of these injuries can be fixed, but healing in a reptile is extremely slow and these animals stay with us for many months.
In the winter months we get turtles that have been disturbed from brumation and they can be frozen or encased in ice. These turtles must be warmed very slowly and then kept at the center until warm weather in the Spring. It is not uncommon to have 25 turtles spending the winter months with us.
One way we try to help endangered turtles is by participating in a Head Start program for Diamond-Back Terrapins. Diamond back terrapin hatchlings have a survival rate of about 1 in 100 in the wild. The Barnstable Department of Natural Resources has started this program where they place hatchlings about the size of a quarter in schools and facilities to be raised until they are released in June as a larger, less vulnerable turtle. We have some of these hatchlings in our lobby from November to June each year and the public is welcome to visit and learn about them.
Turtles generally nest in the same place year after year and stubbornly will deter all efforts to change their nesting spot. Some of the places don’t seem safe or may be in a situation that inconveniences their human neighbors. If a turtle nests in your yard, please try to just leave the nest alone and let nature take it’s course. You will have the privilege of seeing a wonderful group hatching when the time comes. When turtle eggs hatch depends on weather conditions, humidity and even rainfall. Generally, they hatch between 45-90 days. Babies arrive in August at the earliest. If you feel the nest you are watching is in danger from predators, you can cover it with a wire cage with holes big enough for a hatchling to emerge through and put a weight on it. Also keep your pets away from it at all times and do not use any pesticides near the nest ( or anywhere for that matter).
Sadly, turtles need our help. They are slow and vulnerable. They have been taken from the wild and kept as pets. This almost always ends badly with them have metabolic bone disease from a poor diet or pneumonia from bacteria. Turtles can also live a very long time, and often out survive the owner’s interest in caring for them. They then are dumped back into the woods sick and unable to care for themselves. Sometimes we get them in but then their disposition can be a problem. If they become too dependent on humans for food and care they can no longer be considered wildlife. Please do not ever take a turtle form the wild. It is illegal to keep many of the species in Massachusetts, and often times ends up being death sentence for the animal in the long run. If you are interested in having a pet turtle, there are many domestic turtles in Massachusetts that are in desperate need of a good home and would love to become a part of your family. By driving carefully, disposing of fishing gear properly and letting turtles just be wild can help save many of the species.
To learn more about the Cape Wildlife Center or help in their mission, visit www.capewildlifecenter.com or call 508 362-0111.
Caryn Ritchie is the volunteer coordinator for the Cape Wildlife Center and holds both a Massachusetts wildlife rehabilitator’s license and a federal permit to rehabilitate migratory birds.