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Celebrate 20 Years Of World Turtle Day on May 23

Photo by MDC Staff, courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation.

By Don Corrigan

People are sheltering in place during the 2020 pandemic for good reason, but on May 23 it might be nice to come out of your shell to celebrate World Turtle Day. It’s the 20th anniversary of this annual event that was founded by American Tortoise Rescue.

The purpose of World Turtle Day is to educate people about what they can do to protect the habitats of turtle and tortoises. It’s also a celebration of the great joy that these reptiles bring to so many people on a daily basis. Humans love turtles.

One indication of that love is how turtles have inspired so many popular culture characters, from  Squirtle the Turtle, to  Yertle the Turtle, to Franklin the Turtle, to the  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Ninja Turtles popularized a unique vocabulary for us with such words as  “dude,” “bogus,” “radical,” “bodacious,” and possibly the weirdest term of their time: “cowabunga.”

World Turtle Day is a day to remember that it’s bogus to run over turtles. One bodacious way to help out turtles and to help them survive is to join Turtle Road Watch.

The heartbreak over turtle roadkill has inspired groups from all over the country, including Turtle Road Watch, located at one of the top zoos in the nation, the Saint Louis Zoo. The organization has a number of goals, but two are encapsulated in mission statement exclamations: “Brake for Turtles!” and “Be a Citizen Scientist!”

According to Michael T. Dawson, a conservation education liaison at the zoo, the extensive road network in the United States is hurting the population of land turtles and large-bodied pond turtles. The Turtle Road Watch organization insists it’s time to brake for turtles because road mortality now accounts for upwards of 20 percent of turtle deaths annually.

“A few people from a zoo can’t really address what is a regional issue and even national in scope,” said Dawson. “There has to be a network of people for data collection to identify where turtles are living and where their road crossing areas can be found. When we identify those locations, then we have to figure out how crossing problems can be addressed.”

Turtle Road Watch is enlisting citizen scientists to monitor and report on the direct impact of road systems on turtles in the St. Louis and eastern Missouri region. Google turtleroadwatch to find out more about the program or contact Michael Dawson at dawson@stlzoo.org.

The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) also encourages drivers to be cautious on the roads this spring and give turtles a brake! The home-grown reptiles are often hit by cars during the warmer months, but are at special risk this time of year because they are more active.

Turtles emerge from their burrows and begin the hunt for food and mates during warm and wet conditions, which can lead them to cross roadways, oftentimes resulting in their death. Thousands of box turtles are killed every year by vehicles.

Roadkill accidents are one of the leading factors in box turtle declines, and MDC urges motorists to be cautious and slow down when they see a turtle in the road. If helping a turtle make it safely across, check for traffic and move the turtle across the road in the direction it is traveling.

Missourians are advised to leave turtles in the wild. Taking a wild animal, whether a turtle or other wildlife species, and keeping it as a pet normally ends in a slow death. Leave turtles in the wild, follow the speed limit and keep your eyes on the road. Cowabunga, dude, brake for the turtles! And celebrate World Turtle Day on May 23.

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