Rusty is a 30-year-old scientist at the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) on Chemong Road, just outside the city. He has worked with turtle conservationists since 1993, and if it seems impossible that he has been a man of science since he was little, it’s because Rusty is not a man at all: he’s a turtle! He was originally fitted with a transmitter 26 years ago and was kept track of until 2016, providing turtle conservationists with vital turtle data. This handsome Wood Turtle is listed as “endangered” in the provincial records, but this little man in particular is doing swell, despite losing both his front legs to an animal attack several years ago. This type of turtle is the most like a tortoise, as both species spend most of their time on dry land. While Rusty’s days of foraging for berries and worms are over, he is now enjoying an exciting career as an OTCC spokes-turtle. Rusty travels with Wendy Baggs, the Outreach and Education Coordinator at OTCC, to schools, provincial parks, and retirement homes to teach everyone about everything turtle-related.
Although she is not a scientist like Rusty, Andrea is another working turtle at the OTCC. She is a beautiful Blanding’s Turtle who was struck by a vehicle a decade ago, and now permanently resides at the OTCC building due to her serious shell injury and blindness. Although she lost an eye and a piece of her shell, Andrea still kicks butt when it comes to educating the masses. Last year she helped educate over 15,000 people! Her provincial status is “threatened”, but her global status is “endangered.” Andrea is extremely friendly and would love to meet you!
The smallest but feistiest of the eight turtle species found in Ontario would have to be Zag, who is a fully-grown Eastern Musk Turtle, also known as the “stinkpot” turtle! With such a self-explanatory name it’s no wonder that, when threatened, Zag and others of his species will release a foul-smelling musk to ward off predators. After all, when you’re that small, everything’s a predator! Zag and his brother Zig were surrendered to the OTCC after being taken from the wild, and therefore could not be returned to their habitat since its exact location was unknown. An important fact about turtles is that they must be released back to their original home, or they will get lost.
Although it may seem like the turtles are doing all the work, Wendy Baggs is a key component at the OTCC and has been for the last six years. It is her job to book and organize events where she teaches people of all ages about Ontario turtles, and what we as a community can do to help. The OTCC has over 500 volunteer “Turtle Taxi” drivers, or people who are willing to drive short or long distances to pick up injured turtles and bring them to the trauma centre. Wendy explains that the whole organization, which was founded by a group of school children in 2002, is mostly run through volunteer help.
Most turtles brought to OTCC are found on roads where they were injured by passing cars. Others come in with fish hooks stuck in them, or injuries from predator attacks. The turtles are tended to if medical aid is an option. As for the turtles who unfortunately couldn’t be saved, the OTCC wants those ones too! Wendy said that it can sometimes be hard to tell if a turtle is dead or not, but even those who have passed away can still have valuable eggs inside them. Since it is hard to distinguish between genders when it comes to turtles, bringing in any turtle is a good option. At the very least, cadavers are used for research and science purposes. Even if it might not look like they will make it, the survival rate of injured turtles brought into the centre is 60 percent! The OTCC is the only organization of its kind in all of Canada, and they could use a little more support.
Want to learn more or find out how you can help? Call the OTCC at 705-741-5000, or visit them at 1434 Chemong Road. Even if you can’t volunteer your time, they always have merchandise on their shelves, with the proceeds going toward helping to rescue, rehabilitate, and relocate turtles from all over Ontario. Even if you go at a turtle’s pace, go check it out – it’ll be turt-ally worth it!