Once a turtle starts crossing the road, it may or may not be
a long, drawn-out odyssey.
Turtle Rescue League
But it's certainly dangerous. Countless turtles lose their
lives while crossing roads. Especially at this time of year.
Turtle Rescue League
"We are literally smack-dab in the middle of what we call the
turtle season around here," Natasha Nowick, founder of New
Turtle Rescue League, tells The Dodo. "It roughly centers
around the nesting season where they are coming out of the water
and leaving their typical habitat and looking for areas that are
bright, sunny and often on hills where they can bury their eggs
Turtle Rescue League
The journey to those hills is long and perilous, often
crisscrossed with pavement. And turtles are generally completely
oblivious to the dangers.
"They are so singularly focused," Nowick says. "This time of
year they are just walking across yards; they have no fear of
humans because they have an impulse to nest on their mind."
"Honestly, if you move quickly enough, the turtle won't even
notice you picked them up until they are safely on the other
side of the road."
Turtle Rescue League
Many people who see a turtle in an egg-bearing daze mistake
it for docility and take the animals home as pets — "which is
the very last thing a nesting mother turtle needs."
What a turtle might need, however, is a helping hand.
If you see one trying to cross the road, there are a couple
of things you can do. The easiest, Nowick says, would be to
"play traffic crossing guard" and hold back cars until the
turtle completes her trek.
Another option would be to just pick up the animal and carry
her to the other side.
"Always help a turtle cross the road by placing it on the
other side of the street in the direction it was heading," she
But have a good look at the turtle first.
"If the turtle has a crack in the shell, do not place [him]
in water," Maguire explains. "If there's a puncture in the lung,
the turtle can drown, so best to just put any injured turtle
found in a small box just a bit larger than the turtle, lined
with paper towels or newspaper. Close the lid and keep in a
quiet place until help is found."
"If a turtle is found with an injury and you can't find a
rehabber to take the turtle right away, there are many vets that
will treat wildlife without charge," she adds. "Just be sure to
give them the location of where the turtle was found so it can
be released to the same area. "
And be careful.
Snapping turtles, despite their daunting name, are especially
"In the case of snapping turtles, never, ever pick [one] up
by the tail," Maguire explains. "This can break their spine
causing terrible injury."
If you think the snapping turtle is injured, she adds, the
best thing to do is to take him to a local wildlife
"Use caution by grabbing by the back of the shell and placing
on a car mat or other object it can be dragged on if it's too
large to pick up."
And what about the, ummm ... snapping part? Well,
that's an unfortunate misnomer.
"Snapping turtles are one of the most misunderstood turtles,"
Nowick says. "Anyone who gets to work with them finds out that,
of all the turtles, they are the biggest babies."
Indeed, a snapping turtle will snap at the air, mostly as a
show to deter predators.
"They have no desire to connect with you because that means
they are connecting with a much larger animal and they will be
stuck with you for a while," Nowick says.
They also only eat in water. So it's not like they're
particularly hungry for human flesh. Or any flesh at all.
"Snapping turtles themselves will only eat their body weight
once in an entire year," she notes. "For an adult snapping
turtle, over 80 percent of the diet is vegetative matter. And
its entire weight will only be consumed once a year."
So don't let the snap stop you from helping out a turtle in
need. Although they may not know it at the time, every turtle
you see on the road could use a friend.
Rick and Teresa Kaepernick
will be in New Orleans for the
Super Bowl on Sunday, cheering
for their son, Colin, to sprint
away from Baltimore Ravens
trying to crush the San
Francisco 49ers' lightning-quick
Mr. Kaepernick, as an adult with the pet, who now
weighs 115 pounds
But once they're back home in
California, there's a
slower-moving behemoth that his
parents will be keeping a wary
eye on: Their son's 115-pound
African spurred tortoise, Sammy.
The beast, still not full-grown,
has a propensity to devour the
family's shrubbery, crash
through fences and bump into
He could also live another
So while the Kaepernicks are
delighted that fans have fallen
in love with their son—jerseys
with his name on them are hot
sellers—they advise families not
to become instantly infatuated
with the likes of his tortoise.
"All they do is eat, walk
around, eat, walk around" says
Experts on the African
spurred tortoise tend to agree.
Tortoise-rescue workers say
there is a proliferation of the
Geochelone sulcata—or simply "sulcata"
adoption, following a craze that
they say began about 10 years
ago as dealers began breeding
San Francisco 49ers
Kaepernick, as a
boy, with his
In California, rescue
shelters are getting hundreds a
year compared with maybe 20 five
years ago, says Ginny Stigen,
president of the San Diego
Turtle and Tortoise Society.
"We've had people literally stop
on the side of a freeway and let
them out," says Ms. Stigen, who
worries that Mr. Kaepernick's
pet might inspire fans to bring
baby tortoises into their
The trouble: Those babies are
cute, but then they get big. Up
to 200 pounds.
Kristin Roman of Staten
Island, N.Y., says she fell for
her sulcata, Big, when he was a
palm-size hatchling in 2002. "He
was lovely," says the
47-year-old medical examiner.
Five years later, Big had grown
to 70 pounds and was tearing
down her home's walls and
burrowing under the fence with
its sharp claws.
"He was not happy at all,"
says Ms. Roman, whose husband
convinced her to turn the animal
over for adoption in 2007.
Waiting for these pets to
pass away often isn't an option:
Some live 150 years. "We often
have tortoises that were left in
someone's will, but the heirs
don't want them," says Julie
Maguire, president and director
of Turtle Rescue of Long Island,
which has found new homes for
300 African tortoises over the
past 13 years.
Ms. Maguire says she fears
Mr. Kaepernick's Sammy will
become "like a ninja turtle:
Everyone went out and got
turtles" when the Teenage Mutant
Ninja Turtles TV show was
One reason to worry is that
Sammy has his own Twitter feed
(@SammyKaep7). To keep Mr.
Kaepernick in touch with his
tortoise, tweets are posted on
the critter's behalf. "Humans
keep asking me if I'm going to
SB," Sammy's account recently
tweeted, regarding the Super
Bowl. "I'm a desert tortoise.
Bayou isn't my thing."
Mr. Kaepernick's father
declines to confirm or deny that
he is the one ghostwriting
Sammy's tweets. He will say
this: "I'm just waiting for
Colin to get his own pad so he
can take him."
He recalls how happy his son
was when, at age 10, he fit
Sammy in the palm of his hand.
Mr. Kaepernick had asked for an
African tortoise so he could
have a pet of his own, in
addition to the family dog and a
"I saw someone on the news
who had one and I wanted it. It
was different—that's why," the
quarterback, now 25, says.
His father says the family
had little idea what raising a
sulcata entailed. "We thought,
wow, what are the chances of him
living a long time?," he says.
When Sammy was still small, the
Kaepernicks kept him in a box in
their four-bedroom home.
But as the young Mr.
Kaepernick went on to excel at
football and other sports, Sammy
grew—and didn't stop. Sammy
devoured so much grass and
shrubbery at the family's home
in Turlock, Calif., that the
family cemented over much of the
Sammy has crashed through a
gate, knocked over a fence and
ripped stucco off the home. On
three occasions, he fell into
the swimming pool and had to be
rescued because sulcatas can't
swim. He once swallowed a bikini
bottom left to dry by Mr.
Kaepernick's sister-in-law, the
elder Mr. Kaepernick says.
Kyle Kaepernick, the
quarterback's older brother,
says Sammy once broke through an
iron gate and vanished. "Believe
it or not, they're pretty fast,"
he says. "The only reason we
found him was I saw these three
kids racing by on bikes, yelling
and waving 'C'mon' and I thought
it had to be Sammy," he says,
adding that Sammy is a beloved
member of the family.
Some breeders say the
concerns over sulcatas are
overblown. "For every one in a
shelter, there are countless
sulcata tortoises living happily
in the backyards of America
causing no problems, making a
lot of people happy," says Tyler
Stewart, owner of
TortoiseSupply.com, a breeder in
And they have redeeming
qualities, says Gisela Zanelli,
76, a retired secretary in East
Northport, N.Y., who has had two
100-pounders. "They mowed my
lawn," she says. "I never had to
mow my lawn."
They're also known for a
pleasant disposition. "He'd
literally walk up to people
like, 'I'm Al,' " says Tasha
Behnke, 41, of Danielsville,
Pa., of her 20-pounder named Al.
Yet both Ms. Zanelli and Ms.
Behnke say they reluctantly gave
up their tortoises for adoption
last year. For Ms. Behnke, a
social worker, it was in part
because Al kept trying to bust
out of an indoor wire enclosure
he was forced to stay in during
the winter months when
coldblooded sulcatas—adapted for
a sunny, warm climate—can't be
"He'd try to get out, flail
and be on his back," says Ms.
Behnke, who had to upright him
because sulcatas often can't do
Ms. Zanelli threw in the
towel after a dozen or so
escapes, from which her sulcatas
eventually grew too heavy for
her to lug back home. "I hope
they're happy, wherever they
are," she says.
Since Mr. Kaepernick's
parents moved last year, Sammy
has gotten a larger yard to roam
in—although the family did write
their telephone number on his
shell in case he got out again.
When he slows down from
football enough to get a house,
Mr. Kaepernick, who
affectionately calls Sammy "a
beast," says he "definitely"
plans to take the tortoise with
him. He added that he will build
the tortoise "a beast house" of
Julie Maguire, director of Turtle Rescue of Long Island, plans to
bring a shellshocked veteran of poor turtle care to this Sunday's Long
Island Reptile Expo at the Hilton Long Island/Huntington in Melville.
"I'll bring Scooter, our 'spokes-turtle,' if it's not freezing cold
outside," said Maguire, who didn't want her hometown published for fear
people will start dumping their unwanted pet turtles on her front lawn.
Scooter will be transported from his 150-gallon aquarium at Maguire's
house and checked into a 20-gallon tank at the expo. A 10-year-old
Eastern Box Turtle with a deformed shell due to previous improper care,
Scooter's condition demonstrates that pet owners should be educated
about turtles, Maguire said. She believes that turtles are "very
Maguire added, "If they are cared for properly, they can live for a long
Educating pet owners about how to handle a turtle and other reptiles is
an objective of the expo, which will feature about 125 vendors, says
Bruce Lowder, owner of Animal Encounters in Putnam Valley, a wildlife
education organization upstate that runs 10 reptile expos a year in the
Northeast. The show floor will include representatives from reptile
rescue organizations and herpetological societies as well as breeders,
cage-builders and pet food suppliers.
Vincent Russo, president of the Long Island Herpetological Society,
which will have a booth at the expo with animals on display, said that
nationwide, reptiles are the fastest growing segment of the pet industry
and that as of 2006, 4.4 million households had a reptilian pet. The
society counts 150 members and meets monthly at the Copiague Memorial
Library, said Russo, a professional snake breeder and the author of "The
Complete Boa Constrictor" (ECO, 2007, $59.95).
The society attempts to counter the perception that reptiles are being
taken "out of the wild" when in fact, "we emphasize that people should
buy captive bred and born animals as pets," Russo said.
Among the lounging lizards will be bearded dragons, which originated in
the deserts of Australia but are now available only captive bred in the
United States. Resembling miniature dinosaurs, they are among the most
popular reptile pets, Lowder said. They "are very tame," he added.
AJ Gutman, a reptile rescuer from
West Hartford, Conn., and editor of Iguana, a quarterly
journal, will be on hand to seek adoptive homes for iguanas that have
been "abandoned or found running around outside because they were
deliberately or accidentally released," she said.
Plenty more adult and baby reptilian types - corn snakes, ball pythons,
geckos, frogs - will be coiled up or slithering about in their tanks or
enclosures. If that doesn't give you the creepy-crawlies, tarantulas
will be displayed, albeit enclosed in terrariums. For those who already
have a pet python back home, snake treats such as "mouse-icles" and
"rat-sicles" (frozen mice and rats) will be available for takeout.
WHEN&WHERE Long Island Reptile Show, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday at Hilton
Long Island/ Huntington, 598 Broad Hollow Rd., Melville. Admission is $9
for adults, $4 ages 7-12; free, ages 6 and under (accompanied by an
adult); 845-526-4845, or
If you’re a gossip junkie, you know that Leonardo
DiCaprio’s latest companion is a 10-year-old Sulcata
tortoise. But did you know that DiCaprio’s new buddy
could live for another 80 years? Even smaller breeds of
turtles — the kind you used to see for sale in Chinatown
before the city cracked down on the illegal practice —
can live for 60 years.
There’s no doubt about it: Owning a turtle is a major
commitment. But that didn’t dissuade Jean Huang and
Peter Barrett from bringing two red-eared sliders (the
most common type of pet turtle) into their lives. In
fact, their hard-shelled pals, Michael and Ella, even
attended their wedding this August — sporting a bow tie
and a flower.
“We’ve become crazy turtle people together,” says
Huang. They bought Michael in Chinatown, but after
learning about the law that prohibits the sale of
turtles under four inches, and hearing sad tales of
people buying turtles and not taking proper care of
them, they’ve since become advocates for turtle
adoption. In fact, Barrett turned to the Long Island
Turtle Rescue group to find a pal for Mikey, and
surprised Huang with Ella when he proposed.
“They’re an integral part of our relationship!” says
Huang. “Everyone knows us as the crazy turtle couple!”
Crazy, but devoted. Learning that Mikey (who’s named
after Mayor Bloomberg) would live for 50 or 60 years was
a shock at first, but they were so taken with him that
they happily splashed out on all the necessary equipment
to make him feel at home.
“A $5 turtle turned into an [expensive] proposition,”
says Huang of the aquarium that took up most of their
dining table, plus the water heater, filter and heat and
UVB lamps that keep their cold-blooded friends comfy.
“Ella basks [under that heat lamp] like it’s her
9-to-5 job,” says Huang. “But as soon as we get home,
Michael starts trying to get out of his tank so we can
pet him. We scratch his shell and he does a twist to get
us to scratch the right part. He’s hysterical.”
Ella, on the other hand, is a bit more aloof. “We
call her ‘the professional turtle,’” says Huang. “She
comes over to us begrudgingly to be fed, but doesn’t
have the same affectionate nature.”
Julie Maguire of the Long Island Turtle Rescue says
that each species of turtle or tortoise has specific
needs when it comes to food and shelter. Mikey and Ella
eat pellet food for aquatic turtles that’s available
from pet stores, but Huang and Barrett also feed them
“They’re like kids,” says Huang. “They reluctantly
eat their leafy greens.”
They love, however, to go for walks in the grass when
it’s warm enough, and Huang and Barrett hope one day to
have a big house with a pond for them to swim in.
Maguire stresses that anyone interested in getting a
turtle should, like Huang and Barret did before finding
Ella, research the species and know what to expect.
“They’re all cute when they’re little, but not
everyone can have a 150-pound tortoise in their home or
a 10-pound turtle swimming in a tank in their
apartment,” she says. “If you buy one, it should be
yours for life.”
“We know we’re going to have them even when we have
grandkids,” says Huang. “Fortunately, we really love
turtles. They’re much more lively than you would think a
reptile could be. We think of them as our little green
For more information on turtle adoption, contact the
Long Island Turtle Rescue, turtlerescues.org. If you
find a turtle roaming free, you should contact LITR or
the local office of the New York State Department of
Environmental Conservation at 718-482-4900. Not all
turtles should be released back into the wild.
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