The turtle’s name is Sammy. Like most snapping turtles, he has a craggy face, thick skin and strong jaws. But Dee Strinsa, who has handled amphibians and reptiles since she was a child, isn’t afraid. She lifts the turtle out of his tank, balancing him on the palm of her hand as if it’s the easiest thing in the world.
“He only bit me once,” Strinsa remarks.
Sammy landed in Strinsa’s care after he lost his eye and part of his nose when he was struck by a car; now, he lives at Five Rivers Educational Center, so disabled he cannot return to the wild. There are other turtles nearby: a plastic container inhabited by five box turtles and a soft-shell turtle, native to Florida, who’s named Bisquik, “because he’s flat as a pancake.” Bisquik once lived in a school classroom. There’s also a 7-year-old sulcata tortoise, which is native to Africa and can grow over 24 inches tall.
“She eats like a horse,” Strinsa notes, while showing off the turtles and tortoise who live at Five Rivers. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with her when she gets older.”
Strinsa is the water education specialist at Five Rivers, but she also cares for abandoned and injured reptiles and amphibians, and runs educational presentations for school groups and the public. One of her goals is teaching people about a species that has seen its population steadily decline over the years; earlier this month, she gave a talk, titled “Where Have All the Turtles Gone?” at Thacher Nature Center in Voorheesville.
Taking her work home
Like her office, Strinsa’s Duanesburg home is filled with turtles — 28, to be exact. They live in a heated room off the kitchen, along with two tree frogs, a toad and four or five pythons.
There are red-eared sliders and painted turtles, as well as spotted and Blanding’s turtles. Many of these turtles had serious problems when they arrived: A diamondback terrapin, for example, refused to eat. “Now I can’t get it to stop,” Strinsa said.
Strinsa is also raising a dozen wood turtles for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; in the spring, when the water is warmer, these turtles will be released into the Vlomankill creek near Five Rivers as part of a state effort to reintroduce the species to the area.
They will be 3 years old — mere infants, considering wood turtles can live nearly 60 years.
“Historically, wood turtles have been out there, but we haven’t seen any for a long time,” said Strinsa, who has released 18 wood turtles into the wild during the past couple years. “Wood turtles need a huge amount of territory. They’re in streams in the winter, but they’ll wander around in the summer. They’ll wander about a mile.”
The state has tried similar releases in the past, with mixed results.
What Strinsa is doing is a bit of an experiment, said Al Breisch, the amphibian and reptile specialist with the New York State Department of Environmental Education’s Endangered Species Unit. “Any of these releases you’d have to call experimental because they’re not a very easy thing to do,” Breisch said. “We’re hoping it expands. We say they’re experimental because every project requires follow-up to see if it will succeed.” He said the goal is to move from this experimental phase to a more “traditional management approach,” where developers receive information about turtle species in the area they’d like to develop and use that information when drawing up plans.
“The re-establishment of a population is a desperate measure,” Breisch said. “That’s when you’re starting to see things go away. I’d rather put effort into protecting habitat.”
He added, “We don’t want to encourage people to start their own [re-establishment] projects.”
In New York, box turtles and wood turtles are species of special concern; the Blanding’s turtle is listed as threatened. Virtually every turtle species in the state — even the more common snapping and painted turtles — are listed at some level of concern, Breisch said. “Turtles are the most severely impacted group of vertebrates by humans,” he said.
Re-establishing a turtle population is challenging for several reasons. Their life span is long, which means they don’t reach sexual maturity until they are in their teens. As a result, Breisch is still waiting to see whether turtles that were released into the wild more than a decade ago will reproduce; if this doesn’t happen, the project cannot be considered successful. Turtles also get programmed to their habitats; if they are removed from their home, they have a tendency, when set free in a new location, to just wander forever in search of their home.
In the early 1990s, the state reintroduced more than 100 box turtles in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on Long Island.
To prevent them from leaving to look for their home habitat, the state built an enclosure and left them inside of it for months. Eventually, the turtles were permitted to move outside of the fence. Some stayed in the area, others were killed by predators, others left.
Around the same time, six box turtles were introduced, in an enclosure, in the Albany Pine Bush. After they were moved outside the enclosure, three stayed in the Pine Bush and the others wandered away.
Because of the mixed success of the box turtle projects, the state decided to introduce baby turtles, rather than full-grown turtles, to the wild in future releases. In 1996, they began covering Blanding’s turtle nests; when the eggs hatched, half were released into a pond, and the other half were sent to the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University to be raised.
Eventually, 55 Blanding’s turtles were released in a preserve in Dutchess County. About half of the turtles, Bresich said, have survived; for the first time, females — those who are 18 this year — will be able to nest.
“Because we used hatchlings, they didn’t have time to develop the cues that would tell them where their habitat was,” Breisch said. With the adult turtles that were released, “everybody was already set in their ways.”
For years, the state’s turtle population has been declining.
This is the result of several factors: loss of habitat because of development and road construction, hunting for food, and the pet industry.
Many of the turtles purchased as pets are abandoned. “It’s mostly habitat loss,” Strinsa said. “Their habitat is just disappearing.”
Breisch agreed. “Development has expanded into areas I didn’t think it would expand into 25 years ago,” he said. “There’s development on marginal land I used to think would be set aside for wildlife.”
Breisch recalled driving in New Scotland and seeing a box turtle walking on the road. When he got out of the car to look at it, he said that it was a Gulf Coast box turtle — in other words, a species that isn’t native to New York. “There were no houses within a quarter of a mile,” he said. “How did it get here?”
“Most pets have a short life,” Breisch said. “People get a turtle, and they [have to be] willing to make a commitment to it.”
Strinsa grew up on Chatauqua Lake, where her father worked as a fishing guide. Her mother, she said, remembers her playing with snakes as a child. “I grew up playing in a swamp,” she recalled.
As an adult, she became a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
She was eventually hired at Five Rivers as a water education specialist, but much of her work revolves around reptiles and amphibians “They knew I had all sorts of animals,” she said. “It sort of evolved.”
At one time, Strinsa rehabilitated an average of 10 turtles a year, but that figure has dropped to three or four.
She once rehabbed a milk snake that’s spine was broken by a dog that shook it so hard eggs flew out; Strinsa placed the snake in a plastic sleeve-like cast, and the snake laid the rest of its eggs.
Once, she hatched the eggs of a turtle that had been killed by a car.
Strinsa is “an amazing person,” Breisch said. “She really gets into this. She’s concerned about the welfare of the animals.”
Strinsa has an older wood turtle she uses in her presentation, but she doesn’t bring the baby wood turtles she’s raising to Five Rivers.
“I don’t want them to interact too much with people,” she said. “I don’t want them to walk up to something that’s going to eat them.”
Turtles can be fun, but they’re often more than people bargained for.
“Turtles live a long time,” Strinsa said. “A turtle is dirty.” But they have their good qualities as well. “Turtles are personable,” she said.
“People think they’re going to make a great pet, and they don’t.”