Turtle lover runs rehab for injured shelled reptiles
A small study in a Bella Vista residence houses some unusual occupants.
At first the room seems pretty ordinary, except for some unusual box-like structures, but look more closely and visitors will see the residents of Joyce Hicks’ study are all injured turtles.
Hicks is a turtle rehabilitation specialist.
It started when she and her husband lived on a farm in northeast Texas. She had horses, chickens and goats, but when a horse accident limited her activities she started thinking more about the box turtles that were all over the farm. It seemed natural for her to start taking in the ones that were sick and injured.
“They’re quiet and easy to handle and I don’t need a rabies shot,” she said about turtles. “They are good patients.”
After her husband retired, they traveled in a camper for eight months, looking for the perfect place to live.
“We wanted to be in the country, but close to city services,” Hicks explained. They found the perfect spot on the east side of Bella Vista. Soon after finding their perfect spot they were finding turtles, too.
In Arkansas, a permit is required for wildlife rehabilitation. Hicks needed a permitted rehabilitator to mentor her for two years before she could apply for her own permit. Lynn Sciumbato of Morning Star Wildlife Rehabilitation Center agreed to help, although Sciumbato’s specialty is birds, not turtles. Hicks has only a few months left before she can be an independent rehabilitator.
In Texas, Hicks dealt with mostly box turtles, but in Arkansas, people started bringing her water turtles. She’s even had a few very young snapping turtles. She takes them all and tries to help.
Box turtles live on land and are often injured by mowers, she said. When there is a big construction project, like the new highway going towards Missouri, lots of box turtles lose their habitat. They usually don’t travel far from where they are born, so if she can find a safe place, Hicks puts rehabilitated turtles back close to their home.
If you see a box turtle crossing the road, it’s OK to stop and help it, she said, but be sure to put it on the side of the road it was headed for. Otherwise, it will probably turn around and go back out into danger. When box turtles are traveling, they are probably extending their territory, she said.
If it’s injured the most important thing to do is to cover the injury. If a fly lands on the injury, the turtle will develop maggots and that is probably fatal, she said. She has an antibiotic from a veterinarian that she applies to wounds. She often tries to close shell injuries with tape or epoxy. Sometimes it works.
Some turtles can never be released. A box turtle needs to be able to close its shell to protect itself from predators. She also makes sure every turtle can eat and move its bowels before she sets one free.
Once they graduate from the intensive care area in her den, most of the turtles move outside for a while. One side of her yard looks like a large planting box with wood chips as mulch. There are also some turtle enclosures. Some turtles may spend the winter hibernating in the wood chips. Others move back to the wild.
In Texas, Hicks was a Master Naturalist and presented a program about turtles to schools and churches. She still has her equipment, but hasn’t yet spoken with Arkansas Master Naturalists.
If someone offers you a turtle as a pet, or if your child wins one at a carnival, it’s important to remember that some turtles need a special diet and climate. It can be difficult to keep a water climate clean, she said. You will need a large tank and a strong pump.
Joyce Hicks holds a box turtle she is helping to recover from a mower accident.