Porter wins the race at turtle hospital

Back to school and back to the age-old question we pose of the young, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” Kids get asked that all the time. The day we stop asking them will be the day turtles sprout wings and fly.

What if I told you that day has come? Yes, turtles really can fly all because a boy refused to wait until he was a grown-up to be ‘somebody’.

The wings were set in motion 12 years ago when the young son of a veterinarian in Peterborough became aware of the plight of Ontario’s native turtles. Inspired by his teacher, Jan Rowland, this boy set his sights on playing guardian to these fascinating prehistoric creatures. He was seeing far too many lose their lives being hit by cars. Habitat destruction due to urban growth is greatly to blame for a higher number of turtles wandering onto our busy roads, especially in June when female turtles are trying to reach nesting areas.

The eager student saw no reason to wait for adulthood to do something about it. Of course, no matter how ancient and wise turtles may look, he knew he couldn’t educate them personally about road safety so he decided to educate the ones behind the wheel. With a little help from his mom, teacher, and schoolmates, he founded “Kids 4 Turtles” and launched a fundraising campaign, collecting more than $5,000 to purchase “Turtle Crossing” signs. Touched by the dedication of these young conservationists, the Peterborough County council made sure those signs are nearly as prominent as the speed limit signs throughout the Kawartha region.

That was just the beginning. As more people in the community learned of one local boy’s mission to save turtles, more turtles were showing up at his mom’s veterinary clinic with injuries sustained by collisions with cars, boats, fish hooks, dogs, and even spooked horses, thanks to Good Samaritans with a newly discovered respect for these endangered gentle janitors of our ecosystems. It was only a matter of time before increased awareness and rescue efforts spread province-wide. So saving injured turtles went from one veterinarian throwing together a MASH unit of turtle-saving volunteers to registering the rapidly growing organization as a charity and seeking out a proper facility for the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre.

By 2009, Dr. Sue Carstairs joined the KTTC as its executive and medical director. In fact, it was a chance encounter with Sue on the set of Animal House Calls in August that paved the way for this article! I was invited to talk about beagles – a canine species known to have been sniffing planet Earth since the time of ancient Rome. Sue was there to talk about a species that’s been around a tad bit longer than that. Originating more than 200 million years ago, turtles have been exploring the planet at their own pace since well before dinosaurs.

Sue and I recognized each other from our days at the Toronto Humane Society. Since then, Sue has been keeping busy. Although turtles have become her main focus, she’s part of the team at the Toronto Wildlife Centre. She’s also a professor at Seneca College teaching exotics and wildlife. When I asked her why she chose to come to the aid of turtles, she explained that she’d been looking for something meaningful to do that combined veterinary medicine and conservation. Turtles were the perfect fit.

Depending on the species, turtles can live up to 100 years. But that’s only if they survive their natural predators before and after being hatched. Less than 1 per cent of turtle eggs and hatchlings survive to adulthood. Survivors take eight to 25 years to reach maturity so if a nesting female is killed on the road, it can take 200 eggs and up to a quarter century to replace her. As it stands right now, seven out of the eight species of native turtles in Ontario are listed at risk of extinction. Considering all turtles do to benefit our ecosystems, such as spreading vital plant life across marsh land by moving swamp to swamp like a bee cross-pollinates flower to flower (only slower), every turtle matters.

That brings us to the part about turtles taking flight. It happened last year with Porter. Not Porter Airlines, but rather Porter the Snapping Turtle. His airline of choice was Pilots N Paws Canada. You might remember this compassionate animal rescue transport team of recreational pilots from one of my previous articles. You may also recall how the group helps transport webbed-footed critters too, like a turtle from Sarnia that suffered a severe head trauma and needed to get to Ontario’s only wildlife rehabilitation centre committed to our native turtles. That turtle was none other than Porter. The KTTC doesn’t make a habit of naming their turtle patients, but they made an exception with Porter since he was the first turtle to ever fly his way to rescue.

Porter the turtle
Porter the turtle

Porter had been hit by a car head on. Things looked bleak upon his arrival at the hospital. But we mustn’t forget the turtle’s amazing capacity for survival! It took intricate surgery and almost an entire year for Porter to heal (turtles do everything slowly), but he made a complete recovery and was happily released back to his swampy home.

It’s amazing all that can be accomplished when we stick our necks out for a cause. The KTTC is not just a turtle hospital anymore. It’s a multi-pronged facility offering educational programs, fieldwork, and conservation tagging projects like the new tracking system for Blanding’s turtles where radio transmitters are attached to their shells! The KTTC will soon be proudly changing its name to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre.

Now that turtles can fly, it’s time we stopped asking kids what they want to be when they grow up. Take it from a turtle, there’s no such thing as growing UP … just forward.

You can’t get anywhere if you don’t stick your neck out first! Become a member of the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre, kawarthaturtle.org. To inquire about group tours or if you find an injured turtle, call the turtle hotline at 705-741-5000

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