THE NC STATE UNIVERSITY TURTLE RESCUE TEAM
The following is a collaborative effort of the students of the NC State Turtle Rescue Team, its Faculty Advisor, and its Social Media Chair
Today we interviewed members of the NC State Turtle Rescue Team (TRT), a volunteer organization run by veterinary students at NC State’s University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The Team provides medical, surgical and husbandry services free of charge in the hope of releasing rehabilitated turtles back into the wild, and currently sees and treats over 300 wild turtles, reptiles, and amphibians each year. We also talked with Dr. Gregory A. Lewbart, its faculty advisor, and with Emma Ferraro, its social media chair and former treatment captain.
Blake Johnson is the Interpretive & Outreach Ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers at B. Everett Jordan Lake Dam where he specializes in community outreach and engagement. He began working with the US Army Corps of Engineers at Falls Lake in 2015 and graduated from NCSU with a major in Environmental Technology & Management and minors in Environmental Chemistry & Toxicology and Soil Science. Blake conducts our interview series with environmentally-minded area nonprofits, and we are most pleased to have Blake conduct today’s interview with members of the TRT as well.
Dr. Lewbart, before I talk to the Turtle Rescue Team (TRT) members, I wanted to ask you about the origin of the TRT. I know that the Eastern Box is the only terrestrial turtle found in North Carolina. For those who aren’t aware, it’s our State Reptile. Unfortunately, the box turtle faces several threats given the continuing loss of habitat, the threat of being hit by cars , and its low reproductive rate. With all these considered, combined with population studies, it’s believed our box turtle population is diminishing. Did the plight of the box turtle specifically contribute to the formation of the TRT?
Actually, the team was not specifically formed for box turtles, although its beginning seeds were actually sewn by box turtles. In 1992 I was hired as assistant professor of aquatic animal medicine at NCSU. The next year a mom with two children at Baucom Elementary in Cary told me there were several dozen box turtles in the school courtyard which were displaced and/or recovering from injuries. She asked if I might use these for research to increase our knowledge of turtle medicine.
This simple inquiry led to her and me to triage and treat injured and ill turtles for several years. That first year we treated about 10 turtles, the next year 30, and then 50. Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree students (DVM) began to assist us in many of these cases. In 1996 she moved to Georgia and donated the necessary funds to start our Turtle Rescue Team (TRT).
It’s encouraging to see the paths that following our curiosity can take us. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it certainly helped the turtles here. So how did you actually organize and begin the TRT? Can you tell us about its structure today?
I modeled the Team based on a wildlife service we had when I was a vet student at University of Pennsylvania and in the first year at State the Team saw about 70 cases. Now this is their 27th year and they have treated an estimated 7,000 turtles and other amphibians and reptiles.
Day-to-day is run mostly by veterinary students, but there are also undergraduate volunteers, rehabilitation volunteers, with me as advisor. Other College of Veterinary Medicine faculty, residents, and interns are consulted for complicated cases, so they are effectively part of the TRT as well. The Team relies on faculty to ensure that the highest standard of care is provided, and are using the most advanced diagnostics and treatments when faced with unique challenges.
7,000 thousand turtles – wow. For our readers, think of how many turtles you’ve seen over the years and I’m sure it doesn’t scratch the surface of 7,000. That’s a lot of turtles helped. So, as advisor to the TRT, what role do you play?
As advisor, I am the main point of contact for questions students might have about our patients or leadership ideas. It is also my responsibility to insure that all procedures are meeting professional standards.
In recent years, the students themselves have been contributing more than ever to new clinical innovations and research through the TRT. The research conducted by our students helps improve our procedures so even more turtles can be saved.
Thank you for sharing this with us. I’d like to address this next question to the other TRT members with us and get their insight. About how many turtles do you all see each year?
Blake, past records indicate that when we were first formed, we were seeing less than 100 cases per year. This became an average of 150 a year over the next decade, and in 2011 we broke 200 cases. Of course, none of us were enrolled back then. We can tell from our own experience that in 2021, 631 patients “walked” through the door (a new record), a majority of which were Eastern Box Turtles.
And of the turtles brought in, how many of these can actually be helped and how many are eventually returned to the wild?
Based on historical records, we know that if an animal comes through our doors, there is a 50% chance the turtle will be released. If the turtle survives for 24 hours this figure rises to about 65%.
While unfortunately not all of our turtles and other patients can be saved and returned to the wild, one or more of us will try to return those that can be saved to the area where they were found. The only patients that we must rehome or transport to a sanctuary are those with conditions that would seriously inhibit their survival in the wild, such as blindness or multiple limb amputations.
Are there turtles that may require a higher level of care than you and the other team members can provide?
Yes, unfortunately this is sometimes the case, so every turtle who requires a high level of care stays with us, where they have access to services. such as endoscopy, imaging, and consultations from board-certified veterinary specialists.
The most critical cases will stay with us for daily care and husbandry, and these cases can also receive specialty services such as endoscopy, imaging, and consultations from board-certified veterinary specialists if necessary.
It is great that you and the other team members can depend on having this level of medical service available to the more critically ill patients. So what do you do about patients that are on their way to a complete recovery, no longer need regular care, but are not quite ready to go back to where they came from?
Yes, we often have patients that no longer need daily medical care, but are not quite ready to be released into the wild. We will transfer these cases to licensed wildlife rehabilitators or temporary foster volunteers, where they can continue to heal in a safe environment before release.
It is so comforting to know that these turtles will be taken care of. Now I have heard that many turtles may try to return to where they were taken. What do you and the other team members do about this?
Blake, when a turtle is first brought in, the one of us that is on duty will have the finder complete an intake form which asks where it was found. This can be a street address or nearby intersection. We all know turtles like to stay within about a one mile radius throughout their life, so if they are able to be released, we are all comfortable in placing them anywhere within that distance of their found location.
Now if a turtle came from a high-density area or a busy roadway, a Team member will try to place it away from busy streets and developments, but still within a one mile radius of their rescue location. Sometimes their finder can identify a local wooded area or pond where they would be safer.
Are there situations where you do not have a location where a turtle came from?
Rarely does one of us see a turtle that we have no idea where it came from (perhaps even the county or state). In such a case we will not release it, especially if it’s an eastern box turtle, and it is placed in a permanent home or education facility instead.
So the general idea is that if you, say, were to release a turtle 30-miles from where it was found, it’ll likely try to make that 30-mile commute to its place of origin? That’s wild! How do turtles accomplish this?
Turtles are incredible because our current understanding is that they can use the electromagnetic fields around them to navigate and determine their location. It is currently unknown just how far they will attempt to travel to get back to their original home, but we like to try to avoid this stress whenever possible by returning them close to where they came from. There is more research being done at other institutions to investigate this fantastic skill of theirs!
There is an unprecedented level of development in our area, in many cases requiring the clearing of trees and vegetation. Do any of you know what might happen to wildlife that lived there? Are they able to escape or are they killed in the development process?
Unfortunately, many wild species are harmed in the development process, usually by construction or destruction of their food sources. You might be surprised to know that sometimes a construction crew will reach out to our team upon finding turtles on the land being developed, looking to relocate them to a safer area. In these situations, we, as TRT members, are not authorized to relocate these turtles, and we usually refer the crew to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.
Can you tell us about the types of injuries you and the other team members see?
I think we all agree that the most common injury we see is shell fractures, usually caused by vehicular trauma that is more common in the spring and summer months when turtles are traveling longer distances. We would usually try to adhere hook-and-eye clasps, or the types of hooks found on bras, to either side of the fracture and oppose the shell pieces with wire tightened around the hooks.
But we also treat ear abscesses, viral or bacterial or upper respiratory infections, and predator injuries. We find lodged fishhooks in turtles, and for snakes there are netting entanglement injuries or artificial chicken eggs lodged in their gastrointestinal tract which they often eat by mistake.
You mentioned predator injuries. I know that domestic pets such as dogs may injure or even kill a turtle, but what about natural predators? What do you think about this?
Blake, it would be difficult for any of us to say how often turtles are injured by non-domestic species, as the ones that are brought to us with predation injuries usually come from neighborhoods where household dogs are the most likely culprit. However, we feel that wildlife such as raptors and coyotes could also pose a threat. We just don’t see this very often. About 5% of the box turtles we see are cases of “CBD” (chewed by dog).
Have any of you ever received a pregnant turtle? And if so, what might you do to help it?
Blake, whichever of us is working in the lab at any particular time is liable to get a gravid or pregnant turtle. When this occurs, we provide some soft substrate in an enclosure that is ideal for egg laying. If she does lay eggs while in lab, we will collect and store them in an incubator. One of us will monitor all the eggs daily, and these should hatch in 2-3 months. We will house the hatchlings in the lab utilizing acceptable husbandry standards until their nutritional pouch is fully absorbed. Then we will release them where the mother was found.
You might find it noteworthy that we recently had one patient, a common snapping turtle named Nancy, who laid an astonishing 38 eggs while in our lab! Thirty-five of those eggs hatched and the little turtles survived to be released. The team shared this wonderful event live on social media so that all of Nancy’s supporters could participate in the experience. Nancy was released into the same lake she came from, so it was a happy ending for all!
You mentioned that you shared this wonderous event on social media. What about your utilization of social media? Emma, as social media chair, what can you tell us?
Yes, I am the Social Media Chair for the TRT, and I also am the Turtle Ally Certification Program Coordinator. As Social Media Chair, I am responsible for maintaining all social media platforms for TRT (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok) and responding to messages through these platforms.
Emma, what part does social media play in helping the TRT in achieving its mission and why is this so important?
When TRT first started, the internet was barely around, and social media was nonexistent. We spread our information primarily by word of mouth, so not many people outside of the vet school knew we existed. Today, almost everyone has social media, and most platforms provide non-profits with resources for sharing their contact information, receiving donations, and making fun approachable content that draws people into our mission.
When people share our most recent hilarious TikTok with their friends, we get more followers who have access to our contact information, and more turtles make it to us when they are found with injuries. We now see hundreds of cases per year, which may be partially due to this increased online exposure.
Awesome, I’ll have to make a point to check out your social media outlets now. I manage social media here at Jordan Lake as well so I know how helpful it can be and I’m always looking at other social media managers to learn from. Now I have another question for a team member - in regard to pregnant turtles, do pregnant turtles ever die in-route to you or before you can help them? If so, is there still a chance at saving the offspring?
Sadly, one of us will sometimes receive gravid turtles who are deceased or pass away shortly after we get them. We will surgically collect the eggs post-mortem, and then store them in an incubator. Later, we always feel that it is always magical when we can see a turtle’s babies return to her home, even when she did not survive herself.
I know you guys are called the TURTLE Rescue Team, but do you all treat other animals as well?
Yes, we will all try to treat any non-venomous wild reptiles and amphibians. However, Turtle Rescue Team is not licensed to treat wild birds, mammals, or even privately owned pets.
What types of turtles might you and the other team members see in a typical year?
We will see all types of native turtles, and some non-native species as well. The most common is the Eastern Box. We also treat yellow-bellied sliders, river cooters, common snapping turtles, mud turtles, musk turtles, painted turtles, and red-eared sliders. Some of these may have been pets at one time, but were “released” instead of surrendered to a rescue, and ended up either ill or injured in the wild.
As a kid, I had pet yellow bellied sliders. When they started growing too big for me to manage, I began training them to hunt to prepare to release them in the wild. I was one of the millions of well-intended, but unfortunately ignorant turtle owners who then released their turtles in hope of a better life for them. I now understand, just as you said here, they’re very prone to illness and injury after being raised in captivity and then put out into the wild by a nonprofessional so I appreciate you bringing this to the reader’s attention as this is something that’s stuck with me since I learned better. Anyway, people might want to know why do turtles really cross the road. Can one of you help us with that one?
I can! When someone sees a turtle crossing a road, this is typically to find food, a mate, or the perfect spot to lay her eggs if she’s female and gravid. In many cases, they were there before the roads. If you see one crossing a road, you might help by placing it off the road in the direction it was going. If you place it on the side it came from, most likely it will just turn around and try to cross again.
And of course, always exercise extreme caution when trying to help a turtle in a roadway. As much as we all love turtles, human life is the priority.
This is especially true in the spring y’all so be sure to keep your eyes peeled in the spring! Now one day here at the lake, I saw a turtle kicking the ground with its back legs. What was going on there? Do land turtles make nests or depressions to sleep in and do they ever hibernate?
Yes, they do make depressions, especially once it gets colder outside, and you may see terrestrial turtles burrowing into the ground to stay protected and keep warm. They will typically dig shallow holes or depressions and cover themselves with leaf litter, but every turtle will be different in just when and how they make their winter home.
And they enter a state called brumation in the winter, which is a state of decreased activity, similar to hibernation.
Does this mean we should be mindful about where we step in the fall and winter for fear of stepping on a turtle out of sight?
If you are walking on a well-traveled pathway, you shouldn’t have to worry since turtles like to hide away from populated areas! But if you’re hiking out in the woods or working with dense vegetation, just use caution. Especially be sure to check first before mowing your lawn if it is overgrown and difficult to see any potential nests or critters hiding below the brush.
I would like to learn a bit more about students in the TRT? What are you typically allowed to do?
Those of us that are veterinary students (DVM) are permitted to triage new cases, determine treatment plans, perform surgeries, and provide continued care. Some of us do want more than this, so there are leadership roles available to us, allowing us to experience maintaining the organization. However, those of us that are undergraduate student volunteers will be quick to tell you that we cannot have our own cases, but we can assist veterinary students with medical procedures and help them with the husbandry tasks, thus helping keep our patients well cared for every day of the year.
Can any of you get college credit for their efforts? Are your experiences ever useful in your degree concentrations?
As a team member, I think I can speak for most of us when I state that while the Turtle Rescue Team is mostly an extracurricular activity, there are certain elective courses offered to veterinary students that are TRT members that may count as class credit. There also is a specific one-credit course for Turtle Teamers. Our becoming involved with TRT during our veterinary education helps us to become familiar with reptile and amphibian medicine, and also allows us to practice triage, diagnostic, treatment, and surgical skills that we can take with us into any discipline in our field.
Dr. Lewbart, I wanted to direct this next question to you because I understand that the TRT lab has moved several times in the past. What can you tell us about the TRT facilities at NC State?
Good question Blake, - The TRT “lab,” named so because our original location was in my research lab, is located in the Health and Wellness Center at NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. This is its fifth location. While it is just one large room in the hospital, it provides ample room for housing patients, storing supplies, performing daily husbandry, and doing surgery.
On warmer days, the team members may take some turtles to the front lawn for sunlight, as vitamin D is an excellent tool in the healing process. If you’re on campus at the right time and you see a hoard of turtles running around, you’ve just have been lucky enough to stumble upon sun time!
As its faculty advisor, what would you suggest one can do to help the Team with its mission?
Donations are always appreciated! The TRT can accept both monetary donations and donated supplies, such as disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, and other husbandry equipment. Keep an eye on our social media posts for updated information on what they need the most!
One can also help spread the word and share our contact information. If you see any posts on social media or know of anyone who has found an injured turtle or other wild reptile or amphibian, have them give the TRT a call on the intake phone at (919) 397-9675 !
For other ways to help and stay involved in the TRT mission (and for tons of adorable turtle pictures and fun facts), please follow them on social media:
- Instagram: @turtlerescueteam
- Facebook: @NCSUTurtleRescueTeam
- Twitter: @turtle_rescue
- TikTok: @turtlerescueteam
I want to thank the NC State Turtle Rescue Team for sharing their mission with us. This was an eye-opening interview for me, even as a park ranger! Remember, if you find a sick or injured turtle, and want to help it, what’s best for both you and the turtle is to call the team at 919-397-9675 or email them at email@example.com
THE NC STATE UNIVERSITY TURTLE RESCUE TEAM
LOCATION: The Turtle Rescue Team’s bustling center of reptile and amphibian healing has its headquarters in the NC State Veterinary Health and Wellness Center.
IF YOU FIND A SICK OR INJURED TURTLE - Please contact us, and leave a message via phone or email (options listed below.) Please note that it is illegal for us to treat or accept pet turtles due to our permit. If you have a pet turtle that needs veterinary care, please contact the Exotic Animal Medicine Service at NC State. Call: 919-397-9675 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
MAKE A DONATION - Those that wish to support the mission of the Turtle Rescue Team may make a monetary donation to go toward the treatment of our wildlife patients. Because we run primarily on donations from our community to provide treatment and a safe, enriching environment to our patients, adopting a turtle can make all the difference for an animal in need. If you are interested in making a donation, please go here