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“Turtle doctor” brings wildlife to students

Seneca's Veterinary Technician students work alongside Dr. Sue Carstairs to save injured turtles


The hit-and-run patients would be more than just shell-shocked upon arriving at the hospital. The ones with fractured shells are the lucky ones. Others would be unrecognizable with broken jaws or brain-exposing head injuries that are, in some cases, cureless. But Dr. Sue Carstairs is not the sort to “call it.”

Dr. Sue Carstairs

Dr. Sue Carstairs

“They’re in pieces and you can see their insides. They can look so horrific that most vets’ instinct would be to humanely euthanize them,” the Seneca professor says. “But they’re one of the species that heal well over time, after seeing a lot of the classical injuries, I’ve raised the bar for saving turtles every year.”

Referred to by many as the “turtle doctor,” Sue is an authorized wildlife custodian with more than 20 years of experience in wildlife medicine. Since 2009, she has served as Executive Director of Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) in Peterborough—the only turtle-dedicated rehab facility in the country—as well as Medical Director of its Turtle Hospital.

That being said, “I’d love it if the hospital was put out of business, but unfortunately that’s not going to happen,” she says.

Thanks to Sue, who has been teaching the Exotics and Wildlife course at Seneca for 10 years, many Veterinary Technician students have completed field placements at OTCC over the years, taking advantage of a rare opportunity to work with a species they otherwise would not have encountered. The centre employs mostly volunteers with one full-time and one part-time staff and contract technicians, most of whom are Seneca students.

“For students to see these injuries for the first time, it can be shocking,” Sue says. “But with the unique connection between myself, Seneca and OTCC, I get to expose my students to guest speakers, current practices and to bridge the gap between biology and wildlife.”

For Amanda Klack, a second-year Veterinary Technician student at Seneca, working at OTCC the past two summers has inspired her to pursue a career in wildlife.

“Sue is amazing at improvising with medicine and supplies we use, I’ve gained many techniques and skills here,” Amanda says.

A typical day for Amanda at OTCC involves performing checks on all turtles and administering a variety of treatments, including changing bandages, X-raying new intakes for internal injuries, performing physiotherapy on turtles that have lost leg movement, performing necropsy, and harvesting and preparing eggs for incubation.

“When I first enrolled in this program at Seneca, I didn’t imagine I’d be working with turtles,” Amanda says. “But I jumped at the opportunity when I came across it, because working with wildlife has always been a dream of mine.”

With a goal to “protect and conserve Ontario’s native turtles and the habitat in which they live,” OTCC takes in and releases more than 500 adult turtles from across the province each year. The centre also serves as a hatchery because many turtles come to them after being hit by vehicles while trying to cross roads to lay eggs. This year alone, 1,400 eggs have been incubated at the centre. In 2015, OTCC hatched more than 1,000 turtles through its head-starting program.

Turtle

OTCC takes in and releases more than 500 adult turtles each year.

Once the turtles are healed and the hatchlings deemed ready by Sue, they are returned to where they were found. For example, 15 at-risk snapping turtle hatchlings were recently released to their wetland habitat at Seneca’s King Campus after turtle eggs were discovered there last fall and incubated and hatched at OTCC over the winter.

In Ontario, seven of the eight turtle species are considered at risk. For Blanding’s turtle hatchlings—one of the rarer species in Ontario—OTCC staff will attach radio-tracking transmitters on their shells to learn more about their habits and survival in the wild.

“Turtles are productive members of the society and every single one we save is important for our ecosystems,” Sue says, adding that less than one per cent of eggs make it to adulthood. “If the turtle is 100 years old, you can’t replace that in the population—except in 100 years.”

Sue and turtle

Dr. Sue Carstairs releases a snapping turtle hatchling in Lake Seneca in June. Behind her, David Agnew, Seneca President, who took part in the release along with David Miller, President and CEO of WWF-Canada.