Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of Blanding's turtle © DNR File

Blanding's turtles often move between wetlands early March to mid-October.
© DNR File

April 2012

Creature Comforts

Slow and steady wins the race, maybe with some help.

Johanna Schroeder

Springtime: snow melts, flowers bloom, birds return from their southern vacations and turtle activity is in full swing.

I clearly remember an incident that happened to me the first spring I spent in Wisconsin after relocating from Illinois. I was driving to my parents' new home in Merrimac and was winding along a curve when I noticed something in the road ahead.

It was a turtle, creeping along toward a pond on the opposite side of the highway. After passing it, I thought I should go help the little creature so it wouldn't end up road kill.

I turned around and headed back toward the terrapin, only to witness a truck barrel around the corner and then swerve into my lane to run over the turtle.

I'll never forget the sight – the turtle was smashed into pieces and flew in the air meeting its demise. Shocked by the unnecessary death, I made it my mission to rescue any turtles I witnessed in the future crossing roads.

To date, I have many rescues under my belt, and I have encouraged friends and family to do the same. But there is some important information to review before taking on a turtle rescue.

The most important is to put safety first. Putting yourself or someone else in harm's way to come to a turtle's aid isn't wise. Be aware of cars and people around you.

While it sounds obvious, do not suddenly slam on your brakes if there is a car behind you or do a U-turn in the middle of a busy intersection. Take caution when pulling over and reentering the roadway.

Another obvious tip: don't haphazardly dash into the middle of the street without first checking to make sure there are no cars coming. Use extreme caution if the road has blind corners or is on a busier stretch of roadway. Once you determine it is safe, carefully, but quickly, move the turtle off the street.

But before scooping up any shelled traveler, double check what type of turtle you are grabbing. You do not want to surprise a snapping turtle, which will promptly latch on to a Good Samaritan's finger without warning. Depending on the snapper's size it could inflict a good amount of pain and damage.

The best way to identify a common snapping turtle is by the dorsal scales running down its tail giving it an alligatorlike appearance. Snappers also tend to have a large head, pointed snout and powerful beak-looking mouth. Snappers also are more aggressive than other turtle species and it may be best to walk away from these critters. If you are still committed to the rescue, though, grab a stick for the turtle to bite and slowly pull the turtle across the roadway by its tail.

If you determine that the turtle is not a snapper, proceed with the rescue as you intended.

When moving the turtle, be sure to place it on the side of the street it was heading to. The turtle has a definite reason for wanting to go the direction it's crawling. During late May and early June, turtles leave their aquatic habitat near lakes, wetlands and streams to find drier areas where the female will deposit her eggs. Turtles can often be seen crossing roadways during this trek and throughout the summer and fall when hatchlings appear.

Finally, remember the good advice that your mom gave you: be sure to wash your hands! Some turtles carry the bacterial disease Salmonella, and you don't know where the critter has previously been.

Although it may seem like an insignificant deed, helping a turtle safely reach its destination can bring a simple joy to anyone's day. Wisconsin is home to 11 species of turtles, five of which are listed as either threatened, endangered or a species of concern. This spring use caution when driving near wetlands and waterways.

Johanna Schroeder works in the Water Quality Bureau at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. She loves turtles and has rescued many crossing roadways. Although she does not own any as pets, she pays homage to the reptiles with several turtle tattoos on her arm.