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"Turtle City" Prepares Oil-Contaminated Reptiles for Return to the Wild

This map turtle covered with oil by the pipeline spill as rehabilitated and released.

February 24, 2011

There's a new housing complex in Marshall. The developers call it "Turtle City." The 471 residents don't call it anything.

That's because the residents are 470 turtles and one toad.

The housing complex is a large, heated, pole barn-like building filled with metal stock watering tanks. The turtles (and toad) are survivors of last summer's oil pipeline leak that fouled miles of the Kalamazoo River. They were brought in for treatment after running afoul of the oil and are spending the winter in a warm environment instead of hibernating in the mud.

Turtle City is one of the projects oil-pipeline company Enbridge, Inc., has in place to help restore the Kalamazoo River corridor recover from the more than 830,000 gallons of oil that flowed from a burst pipeline last July 26.

"The thing that has fascinated me about this project was the degree to which everyone got the sense that saving the wildlife was important," said Bob Doherty, a consultant assisting Enbridge on the oil spill clean-up. "The whole community of people involved in the spill response felt that way. We'd get calls from landowners or workers out on the project, that they saw an oiled goose or a turtle, and we'd send someone out to get the animal. And sometimes people would bring a turtle to us in a box."

Stock watering tanks range in size from 100 to 600 gallons. They're fitted with sand filtration units, sort of like the systems used for swimming pools, and supplied with groundwater from the area that's flowing into the river. The water is filtered and tested for contaminants and pH and is "pretty close to what's in the river as you would expect," Doherty said.

There are a wide variety of turtles wintering at Turtle City. Common map turtles are the most numerous, but the residents include painted turtles, snapping turtles, Blanding's turtles, soft-shell turtles, musk turtles and one common box turtle.

Curtains surround the stock-watering tanks in Turtle City to help prevent the creatures' from becoming habituated to humans.

The more easy-going species, painted, Blanding's and map, turtles are in community housing, up to five or six in a tank. The more aggressive turtles - snappers, softshells and musks have their own digs.

But even the community living specimens are assigned roommates according to their needs, explained Jenny Schlieps, the animal care manager from Focus Wildlife International, a West Coast company that specializes in rehabilitating oil-contaminated animals.

"It depends on the social hierarchy," Schlieps said. "You don't want three strong alpha turtles in with a turtle that is weaker."

Turtles are given an opportunity to bask in their temporary homes as they would in the wild The turtles have been cleaned up after their oil exposure, though some have medical needs, skin burns or lesions, caused by the spill. They're receiving veterinary care from nearby Binder Park Zoo. But the majority of the turtles are healthy and just waiting until the time is right to return to their natural homes. Doherty said animal handlers took GPS coordinates when they picked up the creatures so they can be returned their old neighborhoods.

The tanks are outfitted with basking platforms, built from branches to simulate wild river conditions, and have heat lamps to mock sunlight so the creatures can resume as much of their normal lifestyle as they can, considering the circumstances.

The turtles are fed "nutritionally balance pelletized diet for freshwater turtles as well as natural prey items that they would normally eat in the wild in Michigan," Schlieps said. "Depending on the species, that would be snails, crawdads, pan trout worms and nightcrawlers. Snapping turtles may get fish, but the large map turtles have more of crustacean based diet.

Curtains surround the stock watering tanks in Turtle City to help prevent the creatures from becoming habituated to humans.

"Natural prey items are live, though some of the fish are not, depending on the species of fish."

The idea is to make sure the turtles can be self sufficient when they leave. Schlieps said the tanks are set up so the critters have minimal interaction with humans and do not become habituated.

"We want them to be as wild as they can be after being in captivity for this length of time," Schlieps explained. "If everything continues to go well, we'll see a lot of happy turtles when we release them."

Turtle City worker Sarah Klepinger feeds krill to turtles.

Jason Manshum, a senior advisor for community relations with Enbridge, said building Turtle City just something the company could do to restore the area,

"We made a big mess in this community and we affected the lives of many, many people, and it's not just the people, it's the wildlife," he said. "We want to make sure we get this area back to the condition it was prespill and we can't really do that unless we do something for the wildlife.

"We want to be a good neighbor," Manshum said. "This wildlife center we established is just part of being a good neighbor."

The wildlife intervention project has already been quite successful, Schlieps said.

"We have already released more than 2,217 animals, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, but mostly turtles."

As for the remaining turtles in captivity, they're looking at being paroled when the weather warms up. The care-givers will open the doors of the building, shut down the heat and habituate the animals to the climate. And when the water temperature in the river reaches the temperature in the facility, they'll be released, probably in May, Schlieps said.

And what about the toad, which is living in its own hard rubber 50 gallon tank?

"It's a lovely American toad, quite an attractive animal," Schlieps said. "It was captured just prior to the season changing, so it wound up staying here because it was too cold to return it to the wild once it had been cleaned."

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