This Thursday, connecting through the serendipitous six-degrees of separation afforded by the marvels of social media, I was alerted that a neighbor had discovered a pond turtle floating in their swimming pool. And as luck would have it, it was a western pond turtle. By the time I stopped by to help out that afternoon, the neighbors had already carefully removed her from the pool and placed her in a cooler in the shade with a finger of water.
When I first picked the turtle up – a large, 7-inch long female, and to all appearances an old veteran – to inspect her for any injuries or signs of how she came to be in the pool, she withdrew into her shell. But within minutes, she became animated as I poked and probed her, checking to see if she was carrying eggs (she wasn’t). A visual inspection of the shell showed tooth marks, signs of past predatory attempts that had since-healed over. And the red markings evident in the photo above, which I at first mistook for discoloration in the photograph, proved to be faded red spray-paint, a likely sign she had once been someone’s pet. (Why people feel the need to paint turtles, I can’t say.)
Wandering into the neighbor’s swimming pool – its steep sides would have only thwarted any turtle’s attempts at hauling itself out – had merely added insult to her injuries. Each of her limbs showed signs of trauma: her forelimbs were each missing the ‘pinky’ digit’s claw, her hind limbs each had a raw spot on the sole of her pads where the scales had been rubbed off, one hind leg had a laceration above the knee joint, and the very tip of her tail was broken, dangling by a thread of skin.
After photo-documenting her injuries, I placed her in a bathtub lined with towels so she could move around without further aggravating her injuries. She explored the tub over the next hour before settling down, accepting my guest bathroom as her newest lot in life. When I drew back the shower curtain that evening, she had buried herself beneath the towels.
After coordinating with the veterinary staff at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum Friday morning, I transported her to their wildlife hospital for veterinary care. There, they’ll assess her injuries, develop a treatment plan, and ultimately determine whether she’s suitable for release back into the wild.
But as is so often the case with wild animals taken in as pets, release may not be an option for this turtle. Without knowing where she originated from or under what circumstances she was held in captivity, rehabilitation staff need to weigh the risks and benefits of returning a single individual into the wild against the likelihood she has been exposed to other pet turtles with diseases she could transmit to wild turtle populations, that she might not recognize predators or know how to forage for food, or that she has imprinted on humans and might approach people instead of fleeing from them.
Instances like this are a good reminder why wild animals make poor pets, and what you should do if you come across a western pond turtle on a trail or crossing the road. It’s everyday decisions like these – recognizing when a wild animal needs medical attention and when they should be left alone – that helps keep wild animals wild.