The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre is a registered charity operating a hospital for Ontario’s native turtle species. Seven of the eight species of Ontario’s turtles are now listed as species at risk. Injuries to turtles from automobiles, boats, fish hooks, dogs, and humans, are second only to habitat destruction, as a cause for many of the species’ decline. While other species of wildlife are also injured and killed on our roads, most animals have young from the previous year ready to mate and replenish the population. Unfortunately, this is not the case for turtles. Less than 1% of turtle eggs and hatchlings will survive to adulthood. This, combined with the fact that turtles can take anywhere from 8 to 25 years to reach maturity, means that it can take 200 eggs and up to 25 years to replace one nesting female killed on the roadside. Every turtle saved is beneficial to the population.
OTCC is the only wildlife rehabilitation centre dedicated solely to providing medical and rehabilitative care to Ontario turtles. Once healed these turtles are released back into their natural habitat where they can continue to reproduce for many decades.
In the past, we admitted a total of 50-80 turtles per year. This number has climbed steadily as people across the province learn about the work we do and the importance of turtles to their ecosystems. In 2011 we worked 272 turtles. In 2012, a shocking 664 turtles, and by 2013 over 800 turtles.
The centre operates under the leadership of Executive Director Dr. Sue Carstairs, Medical Director for the Turtle Hospital. The centre is supported by a province-wide network of local veterinarians, private clinics, and other wildlife centres who perform admissions and emergency care. Visit the Turtle Drop-off page for a list of drop-off locations and more information about what to do if you find an injured turtle.
Emergency Medical Care
OTCC is well known throughout Ontario and receives injured turtles from every corner of the province. Because prompt medial care can be the difference between life and death, OTCC holds Turtle Trauma Workshops to help train veterinarians and rehabilitators from a variety of organizations across Ontario. Once stabilized, the turtles are transferred to the OTCC facility for ongoing care until they are ready to be released back into the wild. Our network of over 100 Turtle Taxi volunteers is instrumental in the transport of injured turtles from all parts of Ontario, often taking part in a ‘turtle relay’ to cover long distances and get our patients admitted to OTCC quickly for ongoing care.
The turtle’s shell is made of bone, covered by a modified ‘skin’. When a turtle’s shell is fractured, putting it back together is therefore actually orthopedic surgery! We repair fractures with a variety of different methods depending on the species and type of fracture.
We stabilize the fracture sites initially using an adhesive and tape. The pieces are then often wired, using orthopedic wire and holes drilled with a dental drill, under anesthetic.
One thing we no longer recommend for traumatic fractures, is the use of epoxy patches.These tended to hide underlying infection, and make it impossible to see or treat this. This often would lead to a fatal infection developing.
Although the fracture of the shell is the most obvious injury, it is often the internal damage that is more life threatening. Just like any animal that has undergone extensive trauma, the turtle undergoes shock in the same way. This is why access to timely veterinary care is so important to have the greatest chance of saving them.
Facial injuries are also common. Fractured jaws are wired in a similar manner to mammals, using orthopedic wire to reunite the pieces. Of course, anesthetic is always needed for this. Other surgeries frequently performed, include surgery to remove fishing hooks. These can become lodged in the head, mouth, stomach or intestines, and can easily become fatal. Turtles are also brought in for non-traumatic injuries, including abscesses of the ‘ears’, generalized infections, and pneumonia.
Each turtle admitted to OTCC – once stabilized with fluids, painkillers, antibiotics, and wound management – is x-rayed to check for internal injuries and to see the females are still carrying eggs. If there are eggs, we provide the turtle with a nesting box, so she can lay her eggs naturally. The eggs are then moved to a nest container and incubated in our Turtle Nursery. Most hatchlings are quickly released back in the ponds and marshes near to where their mother was found. But those who hatch later in the fall are kept over the winter, to give them more of a “headstart” in life, and are released in spring.
Recovery & Release
Turtles are held at the OTCC until they are fully healed. Some turtles admitted early in the season can be released later in the same season. However, many require an overwinter stay. All the fixation devices are removed prior to release, and it is important to release the turtles very close to where they were rescued from. We usually look for the nearest body of water, within 1km of their rescue site. This is best for the turtles, and this is also the law.
The Role of Outreach
OTCC runs an extensive outreach and education program with goals of decreasing the number of turtles injured injured, decreasing rates of poaching for food or the pet trade, and increasing habitat saved for future generations of turtles. Visit the outreach and education program page to learn more.
Th OTCC adheres to the laws and practices laid out by government of Ontario. Our authorization is issued to us by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and covers reptiles only. This means that we can rehabilitate native reptiles but not other native animals. We focus on turtles only. We cannot treat pet turtles.
For more information on wildlife rehabilitation in Ontario please read:
- What to do if you find a sick, injured or orphaned wild animal
- Ontario Wildlife Rehabiltiation and Education Network (OWREN website)
The Minimum Standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation, 3rd Edition
We follow the rehabilitation standards developed by the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA). The Minimum Standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation, 3rd Edition, is based on accepted norms in biology, medicine, behavior, natural history, and, of course, wildlife rehabilitation. The information in this publication pertains to all who rehabilitate wildlife, regardless of numbers and types of wildlife cared for, budget size, number of paid or volunteer staff, and size and location of activity.