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Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons passes milestone of 1,500 rescued turtles

Turtles, clearly built for duration and not speed, have reigned for an estimated 220 million years. They crawled about when dinosaurs walked the earth. They are one of nature’s ultimate survivors.

They are also tough.

More than 80% of the turtle species known to have lived at the time of the dinosaurs survived a mass extinction event, the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, according to the American Museum of Natural History.

Researchers believe the slow metabolism and aquatic lifestyles of turtles helped them survive that earth-changing event. “Turtles are very tough animals; if times get tough they can go into a state of [suspended] animation,” Tyler Lyson, a researcher from Yale University, told LiveScience in a 2011 article.

Yes, turtles are tough — and vulnerable at the same time. Perhaps never more so than now.

Eight of the 11 turtle species on Long Island are in trouble, said Karen Testa, executive director and president of Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons. By that she meant those eight species are endangered, threatened or have been declared a species of special concern and protected by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Mankind may do to some turtles species what an asteroid couldn’t.

That is the fear of people like Ms. Testa, whose Jamesport-based nonprofit organization is committed to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of sick and injured turtles.

Turtles have fascinated Ms. Testa ever since she was 3 years old and her father found a three-legged turtle. “It was doing great in the wild and I was amazed at how this turtle could survive with three legs,” she said. “Like what happened? I was so amazed by that.”

Ms. Testa studied marine biology at Southampton College of Long Island University, but became a real estate broker. Dissatisfied with that line of work, she decided she wanted to do good for wildlife. She volunteered to work for the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays in 2009. She received a wildlife rehabilitator license from New York State and concentrated on working with turtles.

Karen Testa pictured in 2016. (Credit: Karl Grossman, file)

“I always took care of the turtles there because I always felt like they were the underdogs of the wildlife world because, let’s face it, when the bulldozers come, you know, they’re the ones that can’t fly away or run away,” she said. “They’re the ones that just stood there, and the bulldozers just crushed them.”

Ms. Testa created Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons in 2012, operating on a 1-acre property donated by a businessman. The center said that over its nine years of operation, it has helped approximately 1,500 turtles who have been injured by human activity or abandoned as pets. Turtle Rescue also runs a breeding program for turtles in East Hampton.

About 95% of the turtles that come in injured are eventually released, said the center. Those cold-blooded reptiles that cannot be released live at an on-site, outdoor sanctuary overseen by the nine-member staff.

Turtles face numerous threats: habitat destruction, chemical poisoning, cars, boat propellers, lawn mowers and attacks by wildlife or pets among them.

“They feel pain, just like we feel pain,” Ms. Testa said. “The shell is like your skull. It’s got blood flow.”

Sometimes turtles that are beyond recovery are humanely euthanized by the center.

“It’s like a battle we fight every single day here to keep them going,” Ms. Testa said. She added, “We have a lot of heartbreak here, you know, but you keep moving on for the ones that need us.”

Turtle Rescue expects some 44 turtles to soon come out of hibernation at its sanctuary. They cannot be released into the wild because of debilitating injuries. An additional 95 turtles still in rehabilitation are cared for indoors.

Turtle Rescue receives no government funding. Donations may be made to turtlerescueofthehamptons.org or through Facebook, Instagram and Venmo. Anyone finding a turtle in need of help may call a 24-hour hotline at 631-779-3737.

“We’re very proud of where we’ve come from and where we are now,” Ms. Testa said. “Of course, you always want to do better, but we’re very satisfied with all the lives we saved, and we just want to continue. We will never stop saving lives. This is something that is going to be a lifetime here, so we’re here for the long run.”

Just like, she hopes, the turtles.