Wild Wanderings: Turtle Crossing

Photo | Orietta C. Estrada This endangered spotted turtle was found injured in a roadway and taken to Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg.

Photo | Orietta C. Estrada
This endangered spotted turtle was found injured in a roadway and taken to Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg.

Have you ever noticed that as the weather warms up turtle traffic increases? That’s because the change in season is marked by longer days that bring turtles out of brumation, their version of hibernation. Once mobile, it appears that there’s nothing that can stop a turtle determined to reach their destination (no matter how slow they travel) except, of course, vehicles. The aftermath of a vehicle collision with a turtle is heart wrenching and gruesome. A broken carapace exposes all of its internal organs. For those road turtles fortunate enough to survive these accidents, Second Chance Wildlife Center offers them, well, a second chance.

Why did the turtle cross the road?

To get to the other side, of course. However, to better understand our local turtles, I contacted Kathleen Handley, clinic director at Second Chance. Handley, who has been rehabilitating wildlife for 20 years, said that turtles, especially eastern box turtles, “have a strong homing instinct, and they are imprinted to the location where they first hatched.” That means turtles  don’t migrate and when we see them in our backyards and roadways, they are moving around on their home turf in search of nesting sites, food and breeding partners.

How to help a turtle cross the road

So, what should a good Samaritan do when faced with a turtle in the road? Practice safety first! Of course, getting the turtle out of the road is important. Handley recommends the following:

  • Find a safe place to pull over.
  • Check for oncoming cars.
  • Make sure other drivers see you.
  • Wear gloves or wash your hands thoroughly after handling turtles.
  • When you approach the turtle, check to see if you notice any blood or injuries of any kind.

If the turtle is injured, follow these instructions (don’t forget, safety first): Gently wrap the turtle in a towel or shirt; place it in a box and keep the surroundings dark and quiet; make a note of the address (rehabilitated turtles are returned to the location where they were found); and finally, contact Second Chance Wildlife Center at 301.926.9453 or another wildlife rehabilitator. You can find a licensed rehabber by visiting dnr.maryland.gov and performing a keyword search using “wildlife rehabilitators.” It’s important to note that to wild animals we are predators and therefore, the less interaction we have with them during a rescue attempt, the better.

If the turtle does not appear to be injured, Handley recommends moving the turtle, but only if it is safe to do so. Take care to
“move the turtle to the side of the road in the direction that it was heading” and, she adds, “move it into the brush or vegetation approximately 10 feet from the edge of the road, if possible.” The reason for helping the turtle cross the road is that if you take the turtle back to where it started, it will repeat the same course, risking the same injury, or worse, death. Remember, turtles have a very strong homing instinct and are determined to get to where they’re going.

A word of caution when handling large snapping turtles: Do not pick it up with your hands. Handley says that a small snow shovel or something similar that can be used to carefully scoot it across the road, from behind, is the best way to handle snappers. These turtles, according to Handley, “can stretch their neck out and back toward your hands and feet to about half their body length,” and, she cautions, “they will bite when feeling threatened.”

Wildlife preparedness

Wildlife happens! So be prepared to help turtles crossing the road by keeping a simple rescue kit in your car. My kit consists of
work gloves, disposable gloves, a box and a towel. If you find yourself rescuing a turtle, please contact Second Chance, or DNR. Do not rely on the Web for information on how to help a turtle—get your information from the experts. To learn more about Second Chance Wildlife Center, their work and annual “Baby Shower,” visit www.SCWC.org.