Tur­tle lover runs re­hab for in­jured shelled rep­tiles

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - LYNN ATKINS

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.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/LYNN ATKINS

Joyce Hicks holds a box tur­tle she is help­ing to re­cover from a mower ac­ci­dent.

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