Turtles on the Move

Susan Rehner 

Snapping Turtle crossing the road. Photo by Scott Plantier.

[This article ran in the June/July 2017 issue of The SCOOP.]

Yes, it’s that time of year when we see female turtles slowly making their way across roads and highways, seeking a suitable spot to lay their eggs. Unfortunately, turtles often choose roadsides for their nests because of the gravel (which is easy to dig), the balance of moisture (not too dry or too wet), and the exposure to the sun (perfect) for the incubation of eggs. Most turtles killed on roads are females laying eggs. 

Males also cross roads seeking a mate or a new territory. With so many wetlands having been drained or filled, suitable habitat is much harder to find. And with so many roads bisecting otherwise intact wetlands, it can be a dangerous mission. It is not surprising that Ontario turtles are species “of concern.” 

If you see a turtle crossing a road and you can safely pull over onto the shoulder, put your hazard lights on, other drivers should slow down. If there is no traffic, you can watch to make sure the turtle safely crosses. If it is doubtful that the turtle can cross before another car appears, it is best to help it.
The smaller turtles you are likely to see – Blanding’s Turtle and Painted Turtle – can be picked up easily and moved off the road and out of harm’s way. Always take the turtle in the direction it was heading. To carry a small turtle, place your hands on either side at the midpoint of its shell, thumbs on top and fingers underneath. It may hiss and may retract its head and legs into its shell. I have learned to carry turtles to one side of my body so that if they pee (probably out of fear), I won’t get wet. 

Snapping Turtles, if they are large, can be a challenge. They can be surprisingly heavy and ill-tempered. Because humans represent a distinct threat, the turtle’s aggressive behaviour is intended to scare you off. Unlike other turtle species, the Snapping Turtle cannot retract its head and legs – the shell is too small -- and it is slow-moving and vulnerable out of the water. 

Some people keep a shovel in their cars for this operation. There are other techniques. The Toronto Zoo published a short video online on how to move a Snapping Turtle off the road. The turtle they use in the film is undoubtedly more docile and cooperative than any I have encountered, but the techniques work. The correct way to lift a Snapping Turtle is to put your hands under the carapace (the top shell) on either side of the tail. (Recently I used a thin, flexible rubber mat to pick up and carry a medium-sized Snapping Turtle in this way. It kept my hands clean and helped me hold on when the turtle squirmed.) Carry the turtle low to the ground so that if it struggles and you lose your grip, it won’t have far to fall. Never pick up a turtle by its tail. The tail is attached to the turtle’s spinal column and doing so could cause irreparable damage. 

One of the techniques suggested by the Toronto Zoo for moving a Snapping Turtle makes use of a car mat. Lifting the Snapping Turtle as described above, place it on the mat. Turn the mat around (180 degrees) and drag the mat off the road. When you get to the other side, turn the mat around so that the turtle will be facing in the direction you found it. The one less-than-happy scenario I can envision is that you drag the mat too close to the edge of the ditch, lose your balance, and topple into the ditch with the mat and Snapping Turtle on top of you. So check behind you as you drag the mat.

Before I knew about the video, I once tried carrying a hefty snapper to the side of the road. Because of its weight, I had to run crouched down, and when I got to the edge and thrust the turtle onto the shoulder of the road, I overbalanced and did a face plant. Result? A black eye, scraped nose, and bloody knee. The turtle was fine. I use the more refined techniques from the video now.

Many drivers feel they can safely drive over a Snapping Turtle by straddling it. However, many snappers, perceiving a threat, will raise their heads to snap at the “predator” and will be seriously injured or killed.

If you find an injured turtle, please take it to your closest wildlife rehabilitator – in this area, Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre. The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre is near Peterborough. See addresses and phone numbers below. Place the turtle in a lidded container with ventilation holes and a towel to prevent sliding and to minimize stress. Don’t put it in water or give it anything to eat. Take note of where you found the turtle so that when it has been rehabilitated, it can be returned to the same location. 

Rehabilitators can often recover eggs from injured or even recently deceased female turtles and incubate them successfully. The hatchlings will be released in the fall or overwintered and released the following spring.

Recommended equipment to keep in your car for helping turtles includes containers and lids with ventilation holes, duct tape for the lid, a towel for the bottom of the container, a shovel, and gloves (thin for small turtles, thicker for snappers). The turtles can’t thank you, but I can on their behalf.

Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre 
8749 County Road 2, Napanee 613-354-0264

Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre
4-1434 Chemong Road, Selwyn (near Peterborough) 705-741-5000