The X-ray was horrific, showing a side view of a box turtle that had been impaled by a 6-inch nail running through its back and out the bottom shell.
“I put up a $10,000 reward to try to find the person who violated this poor, innocent animal,” said Karen Testa, director of Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons Inc. in Jamesport, New York, a new facility in eastern Long Island. She never found the psychopath, but she did save the turtle’s life.
“It punctured a lung,” Testa said, “but lungs don’t collapse in turtles the way they do in humans, and he survived.”
The turtles brought to the Jamesport facility, a two-story 1929 farmhouse, are usually victims of human interaction -- hit by cars, dinged by boat propellers, hacked by lawnmowers or starved by ignorant owners.
Testa, a woman with endless energy and enthusiasm, took me through the facility, fitted with large plastic tubs, ultraviolet-B lighting, water hoses and medical equipment. Two volunteer wildlife rehabilitators administered to patients, while incessant birdsong chirped over a sound system.
From one tub, Testa lifted a tiny box turtle, which sat in her palm like a large coin. The hatchling had been stepped on shortly after emerging from its egg.
“It’s amazing what she’s been through,” Testa said. “Her eye was bulged out; one leg will always be paralyzed.” Although the creature was underweight, it had improved much since coming here.
The rescue keeps young or weak turtles until they are strong enough for release in the wild, a treacherous proposition for babies. “These are like potato chips to birds,” said Testa, tenderly returning her little ward to its tub.
Upstairs is an intensive care unit and an incubation room. Testa showed me a batch of diamondback terrapin eggs rescued from a local driveway. The babies will have a chance here.
We looked in on a female box turtle, a hit-and-run victim brought in the day the rescue opened in May. Her broken shell was held together with orthodontic braces. They saved her life, as well as three of her eggs, now warm and safe in the nearby incubator.
“We were going to euthanize but said, you know what, let’s just try. Maybe it’s good luck -- it was the first day we were open!”
The bruised turtle looked, to my untrained eye, as if she’d make it.
“She is our success story,” Testa said, beaming. “The people who brought her in call once a week for an update.”
If Testa is guardian angel to the Hamptons turtles, her partner, Sal Caliguri, is chief benefactor. The owner of Sal’s Auto Body of Smithtown, Saint James, Caliguri purchased and donated the $450,000 house and property, and he has paid for many of the accoutrements as well, including a Range Rover used for the rescue calls, which are made 24/7.
Caliguri’s largesse notwithstanding, Testa spends much of her time fundraising. The nonprofit’s annual operating budget is about $33,000, including $8,000 for property tax and $2,500 in turtle food. Cor-J Seafood Corp. of Hampton Bays donates fresh fish to ease the strain.
Some turtles will never be released into the wild, because their injuries are too severe or because they are too tame from their time as pets. They will have a safe and rather pampered existence in the backyard, which is being landscaped into a sanctuary.
There are man-made ponds, running filtered water, an electrified fence to thwart raccoons and other predators, and a cold frame greenhouse to keep box turtles segregated from snapping turtles.
Inside the greenhouse there’s access to shade, sunlight and running water, and more fresh herbs than a farmer’s market. If the box turtles tire of sage, thyme, mint or oregano, they have kale, lettuce, strawberry, blueberry and tomato to round out the diet.
“This is where the turtles are going to live out the rest of their lives,” Testa said. “And they live a long time.”
That is, as long as they have Testa and the other volunteers to care for them. Keeping that up will also require the generosity of donors, so pitch in via the website or Facebook page.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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