Turtles have held a revered place in world mythology since time immemorial. Kurma, from Hindu lore, is a tortoise with the earth, atmosphere, and heavens all contained within its body. Some cultures believed that the world was supported on the back of a giant turtle.
The sad truth is that turtles cannot support the world, or a car, or even a human foot on their backs, and are often injured at this time of year. The slow-moving reptiles are frequently hit by vehicles, boats, and lawnmowers. Turtle crossing signs, which used to be the norm on the South Fork, have gradually dwindled as the species the signs attempted to protect has diminished as well.
Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, a nonprofit based in Jamesport on the North Fork, is doing its best to help save the local animals, rehabilitating and releasing as many as 100 turtles a year. Karen Testa, the executive director, said the organization is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and will travel anywhere on the East End to pick up a sick or injured turtle.
Aside from the usual threats posed to turtles in the wild, Ms. Testa also said there were other problems that arise from human intervention. People take turtles out of the wild as a family pet without the knowledge or ability to care for them, then drop them in local ponds and waterways when the turtle gets too big.
“We get people who are tired of caring for their pet — it is a lot of work, which many people do not believe — and they call us and say, ‘If you don’t come and get this turtle, we will dump him in the nearest pond,’ and this is in the middle of winter. They are not educated to know that turtles hibernate and it is a sure way to slowly kill their ‘pet,’ ” Ms. Testa said.
Sometimes human intervention takes an even uglier turn. One of last summer’s leading animal abuse stories chronicled the discovery and rehabilitation of a Sag Harbor turtle nicknamed Pierce because an unidentified perpetrator had hammered a nail through the animal’s body.
Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons assists all kinds of turtles found locally: the eastern box turtle, the eastern painted turtle, common snapping turtle, the diamondback terrapin, and the spotted turtle. It also gets its share of red-eared sliders, the most frequently purchased turtle in the United States, especially when the formerly popular family pet becomes too much of a responsibility.
Signs of injury can include the obvious ones, like bleeding or missing limbs and shell damage, to the normally silent turtle making any sound at all, having swollen eyes, or having any liquid discharge from anywhere. Good Samaritans are asked to put the injured reptile into a cardboard box with air holes and a clean towel in the bottom, and get in touch with Turtle Rescue immediately.
If a turtle is crossing the road, its purpose is, indeed, to get to the other side. Putting a turtle back on the side from which it has departed will only cause the creature to attempt the crossing again, Ms. Testa said. The right thing to do is to gently pick it up and put it on the other side of the road.
This does not apply to snapping turtles of course, which can be extremely dangerous. “Never pick up a snapping turtle by its tail,” Ms. Testa cautioned. “That is part of its spinal cord and the animal can become paralyzed.”
As of now, Ms. Testa said, she is looking after around 50 of the reptiles. “We’re brimming over with turtles,” she said. Some will be released back into the wild upon recovery, but a few severely injured boarders will be “at my sanctuary for the rest of their lives,” she said, then laughed, “and that could be another 80 years.”
Turtle Rescue can be contacted online via its Web site, turtlerescueofthehamptons.org.