BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Director Karen Testa holds a snapping turtle that came to the center with a broken jaw. Dental acrylic is holding its broken bones in place as they heal.
Shells shattered, jaws crushed, legs and paws mangled. Karen Testa and the volunteers at Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, which opened in Jamesport in May, see it all. And, Ms. Testa freely admits, it is physically and emotionally exhausting.
They do it because nobody else does, she says.
And it never gets any better.
“I foresee doom in their future, because of the pollution in the water and all the development,” Ms. Testa told me last week, not the slightest hint of exaggeration in her voice. “We had to euthanize 20 turtles in just over two months. And these are just the ones that people find. Could you imagine the ones that they don’t find? They die a slow, horrible death off in the woods. Or they drown at the bottom of the bay.”
Most turtles are injured by cars, boat propellers, tractors or industrial lawn mowers.
If they’re fortunate enough to be found, they end up in Jamesport.
Housed in a two-story 1929 colonial that sits on a full acre, the rescue operation is currently home to about 70 turtles, 30 of which are recovering from surgeries on the building’s second floor, which is complete with an ICU, nursery and operating tables.
Ms. Testa and her two principal volunteers, Ryan Ortiz of Orient and Beth Groff of Jamesport, are available by phone 24 hours a day for emergencies. If someone can’t bring a turtle to the rescue center, the volunteers will go to the turtle, no matter where it is on Long Island or the city.
“We’ll go somewhere just to move a turtle; say a snapper turtle is on a golf course and people don’t know what to do,” said Ms. Testa, the owner of Suffolk-based K Testa Real Estate who, not surprisingly, doesn’t spend much time selling homes nowadays.
It would be easy for anyone to imagine these animals dying out in the woods after seeing the turtles being nursed back to health in Jamesport. Some have their jaws wired shut, others have their shells stapled together. Many are missing limbs. Some have deformed shells or ear abscesses due to water pollution or mis-care or malnutrition.
Just days before my visit, volunteers had to tube-feed a two-inch baby diamondback terrapin after a woman stepped on it in her garden in Sag Harbor.
“Could you believe that?” Ms. Testa added, thrilled that the little one has been doing fine lately.
The Turtle Rescue is the kind of place that’s depressing, in a way, especially seeing the more skittish turtles and wondering what they might have been through. But it also makes you proud of mankind, just knowing there are people willing to give so much to care for these venerable yet vulnerable creatures.
Not only Ms. Testa and the volunteers, but people like Sal Caliguri of Sal’s Auto Body in St. James, which purchased and donated the one-acre property. And Dr. Robert Pisciotta of North Fork Animal Hospital in Southold, a resident vet who works pro bono in his spare time to care for the turtles.
When I asked Ms. Testa just what it was about turtles that sparked such passion in her and the others, she explained that turtles “are the underdog; they need the most help.”
And many of them shouldn’t ever have been born. Red-eared sliders, for one, are farmed specifically for the many pet stores across the state, country and overseas, where anyone could buy a juvenile for just a few bucks.
These turtles aren’t indigenous to New York but instead, Ms. Testa said, get dumped by people “after junior’s been occupied for a month.”
The dozen or so sliders at the shelter will be there their entire lives, as they can’t legally be released into local woods and waters.
“Many of them will outlive me,” Ms. Testa said.
In the wild, red-eared sliders live for about 50 years. Not in someone’s house; that’s a commitment no person can keep.
But Ms. Testa said she’s too busy to lobby in Albany to outlaw the sale of turtles, because she’s at the center all day. In some of her downtime, she hands out informational cards to local landscapers, urging them to look out for turtles and, if they hit one with a mower, to call Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons.
“Tortuga, tortuga,” she’ll tell those who don’t speak English.
A man from East Islip called the center about the time I arrived last Thursday. He had found a terrapin in distress at a marina there. It was probably injured by a boat. The rescue staff told him to take it to a local animal hospital, which he did. A vet had to put it down, the staff later learned.
“Well, that’s one less turtle suffering,” said Ms. Testa.
If you spot a turtle that appears to be in distress, call Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons at 631-603-4959, 516-729-7894 or 631-779-3737. Visit http://turtlerescueofthehamptons.org/ to find out more information about the center, or how to donate or volunteer.
Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.