Each year on May 23, wildlife enthusiasts, educators, and advocates around the globe celebrate a special holiday – World Turtle Day! Officially created in 2000, World Turtle Day was launched by the American Tortoise Rescue to bring attention to, and increase knowledge of and respect for, turtles and tortoises, and to encourage human action to help them survive and thrive. This year, the Wildlife Center of Virginia is reflecting on the lessons that can be learned from the stories of countless turtles that have been rehabilitated at our teaching and research hospital throughout our 40-year history.
At the Wildlife Center, World Turtle Day always signals the end of one "turtle season", and the start of the next! With the arrival of consistent spring temperatures in mid-May, the Center releases many turtles back to the wild in quick succession; these are turtle patients that have overwintered at the Center as they continued to heal from injuries sustained during the previous fall. At the same time, many new turtles are arriving at the Center; it's the time of year when many are emerging from hibernation and are becoming more active.
During the past 12 years alone, our staff, students, and volunteers have cared for approximately 5,000 individual turtles!
|Common Musk Turtle||22|
|Eastern Mud Turtle||22|
|Eastern Painted Turtle||419|
|Eastern River Cooter||106|
|Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle||1|
|Northern Red-bellied Cooter||11|
|Common Snapping Turtle||525|
|Striped Mud Turtle||2|
|Woodland Box Turtle||3,611|
Many of these species are commonly seen throughout Virginia, but several notable patients are included in the table above. Bog Turtles are recognized by the IUCN Red List as an Endangered Species in Virginia and a Threatened Species on a national level. Treating and rehabilitating these animals -- and releasing them back into the wild -- represents a critical aspect of wildlife conservation that the Wildlife Center of Virginia is proud to be a part of.
Another noteworthy turtle patient at the Center was an Eastern River Cooter admitted from Roanoke County during October 2022. The most likely circumstance of its injury was all too common (being hit by a vehicle while crossing a roadway), but its size was extraordinary. As Veterinary Intern Dr. Marit noted during its intake exam, “[the Eastern River Cooter’s] standard carapace length is at least 12.5 inches. If we’re talking about curved carapace length, then it’s 13.5 inches.”
The largest Eastern River Cooter formally documented by the Virginia Herpetological Society within the Commonwealth had a carapace length of 12.2 in. While the official measuring equipment wasn’t available to Center staff during this particular turtle’s time as a patient, it’s entirely possible that this record was (unofficially) broken!
While no two turtle patients’ cases are exactly the same, many similarities exist in their circumstances of injury and rescue. Being hit by vehicles while crossing roadways, sustaining injuries from landscaping equipment like lawnmowers or weed whackers, or interactions with off-leash dogs and free-roaming cats are some of the most common reasons wild turtles are admitted to the Center. Fortunately, helping wild turtles avoid these dangers is easy:
How to Help Wild Turtles
Assist turtles crossing the road by carrying them across in the direction they’re headed. Many turtles crossing roads during spring months are egg-laden females looking for appropriate nesting sites.
Do NOT relocate a turtle to a “better place”. Turtles have small home territories and should be left where they are found. Their survivability depends on it!
Watch out for turtles and other wildlife when mowing lawns and doing other yard work.
Keep domestic animals indoors or on leashes. Free-roaming dogs and cats injure and kill millions of wild animals each year.
Remember to always wash your hands with soap and water after handling a turtle -- this prevents the spread of harmful diseases to both humans and other wildlife.
Don’t ever keep a wild turtle as a pet. If you truly desire a pet reptile and can make all of the commitments necessary to keeping a healthy, happy turtle, please look carefully into adopting. Rescued and re-homed turtles are available for adoption in the state of Virginia through several different organizations such as Blue Ridge Reptile Rescue. Always do your research; illegal turtle trafficking is a significant problem in Virginia.
In addition to acknowledging our wild turtle patients, we’re also celebrating Wilson, Sheldon, and Emma — the Wildlife Center’s education Box Turtles and Russian Tortoise – on World Turtle Day. Throughout the year, these ambassador animals travel with outreach staff members to deliver educational presentations at schools, libraries, festivals, and other special events. Their stories of rescue illustrate the wider problems wild turtles face and challenge people of all ages to take action to protect all wildlife.
In between their scheduled presentations this summer, Sheldon and Wilson will be spending time outdoors in their “turtle garden”. Constructed in 2020, this open-air enclosure is the perfect place for a Box Turtle to dig and explore, soak up the sunshine, and interact with unique and interesting enrichment items. During 2022, a special Facebook Live presentation took viewers on a virtual tour of the turtle garden, which can be watched at any time on the Center’s Facebook page by clicking here.
Turtles are an amazing, unique, and fascinating group of animals that are worth celebrating. This year, consider the following resources, events, and ideas to get involved in helping to protect them:
Ways to Celebrate World Turtle Day
Read and share the Center's Tips for Helping Turtles page.
Learn more about the turtles in your area. The Virginia Herpetological Society has great information and identification guides on Virginia’s wild turtles.
Organize a trash pickup at your local park. No litter is "safe" litter, but lost and discarded fishing gear poses a significant threat to aquatic turtles.
Make a donation to the Wildlife Center toward the live-saving care of the wild turtles we'll treat this year, sponsor the Critter Cams for a day in their honor, or sponsor one of the Center's ambassador turtles through our Caring for Critters program.
However you choose to celebrate, Happy World Turtle Day from the Wildlife Center of Virginia!