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At a turtle’s pace, crossing roads can be dangerous

It’s a tough time for Buffalo Niagara’s wild turtles. The slow-moving animals are sharing the roads with fast-moving motor vehicles, and it’s not a good mix.

“They’re extremely vulnerable,” said Petra Link, a volunteer at Messinger Woods, a volunteer wildlife rehabilitation center in Orchard Park. “Their natural defense mechanism is just to retreat into their shells – especially for painted turtles. The car doesn’t care, it just runs over them.”

Link said she usually treats an injured turtle every year about this time.

But she has treated twice that many this past week, three this month and four this season.

“That is very unusual,” Link said.

All suffered traumatic injuries. Two painted turtles had shell fractures and broken spines. The third – a snapping turtle – was resting on a warm driveway when a car drove over it.

All three died.

Higher pond and creek levels from the wet spring have driven turtles to higher land to search for suitable places to lay eggs.

Ellicott and Tonawanda creeks in northern Erie County seem to be among the most common areas to come across turtles. So, too, are the Tifft Nature Preserve in South Buffalo and the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in Genesee County, experts said.

Others turtles have been spotted in the Town of Evans and along the Lockport Expressway.

“Early June. This is when the females are coming to lay their eggs,” said Dr. Karen Moran, a veterinarian with the SPCA Serving Erie County. “They’re going to come out. A lot of times, the road will get in the way.”

Turtles can be found anywhere near ponds, creeks or streams, and this time of year, they are more likely to cross paths with humans.

Mark Kandel, a regional wildlife manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said he does not think the number of turtle spottings and injuries are necessarily higher this year. But the sporadic heavy rains could have driven the animals into the road, he said.

“I don’t know if people are better about reporting them now because of social networking, but it’s a phenomenon that’s been going on for a long, long time.” Kandel said. “If the shoulders are flooded, they might come up on the roadways.”

Many of the turtles are recovered injured. The lucky ones can be treated by wildlife rehabilitators and survive; the unlucky ones die.

Link is still caring for a pair of injured turtles recovered last year.

She also cares for a small female painted turtle that suffered a fracture to its bridge – the area connecting the top and bottom shells – when struck by a car earlier this year.

“It’s like a bone fracture. Everything heals very slowly,” Link said.

The turtle, although still not eating, is getting better. Link hopes to release the turtle next year “if she survives and heals.”

Moran is treating several more turtles at her home, including smaller painted and snapping turtles as well as a larger snapping turtle. One of the turtles appears to be packed full of eggs, she pointed out.

She was unable to save another pair of snapping turtles this year because of the severity of their injuries. “Their faces were so damaged,” said Moran, explaining one was blind and the other had lost its nose.

Another female painted turtle, one of the luckier ones, is being nursed back to health after apparently being struck by a car Saturday at Beaver Island State Park on Grand Island. A motorist from Snyder retrieved the 10-year-old turtle and brought it to the SPCA’s Ensminger Road facility in the Town of Tonawanda.

It’s resting comfortably now. Its top shell was patched together with glue and tape, and it seems to move contentedly among some foliage and a water cup in a large plastic bin under a desk at the SPCA’s wildlife offices.

“We’re lucky to get them in. When people hit them, all they think is they hit a rock,” said Denise Cameron, a volunteer wildlife shift supervisor for the SPCA, who has been caring for the turtle and its broken shell. “When they get hit, it’s not like a broken bone – it is their bone.”

This turtle is “in dry dock” for at least a few more weeks because exposure of the animal’s wounds to moisture could lead to infection. It will be returned to its native habitat when it is fully healed.

The healing takes time. “Fast for a turtle is like two months,” Moran, the veterinarian, said.

Wildlife experts say patience by motorists would do a world of good for the turtles:

• Slow down. If it is safe to do so, wait for turtles to cross safely.

• If it’s safe, get out of your car and help a turtle across the road. Experts say turtles should be moved in the same direction they were headed. Returning turtles to the side of the road where they started seems only to sharpen their resolve to try to cross the road again.

• Wash your hands well afterwards; some turtles carry the salmonella bacteria.

Wildlife experts agree it is best to secure injured turtles in a box with air holes, covered by a moistened paper towel, when taking them to a veterinarian or certified wildlife rehabilitator.

Moran said she was able to release 38 baby snapping turtles into the wild two years ago after harvesting 51 eggs from a mother that died and incubating them.

Earlier this spring, she released 10 more painted turtle hatchlings that she accumulated last year in the same predicament.

For help, call Messinger Woods at (716) 345-4239. The SPCA’s Tonawanda shelter can be reached at (716) 875-7360 or (716) 556-0076 after-hours.

“Don’t just walk away,” Link said.