From licensed real estate broker to New York State licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Karen Testa, executive director of Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, has made it her mission to care for injured and abandoned turtles, most of which the organization aims to release back into the wild. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Inside the ICU, Staci Earl slowly hand feeds City her lunch — a slurry of meat, fruits and vegetables — using a guitar pick to nudge the food gradually into her mouth.

City is a blind Eastern box turtle and can’t feed herself because her jaw was damaged when she was hit by a car a few years ago. She is one of the many reptilian refugees at the nonprofit Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons in Jamesport, where Earl was among two employees working on a recent April afternoon.

“We have over 200 patients here,” said Karen Testa, executive director of the organization, the mission of which is to rehabilitate sick and injured native and nonnative turtles bought as pets and released by people who stopped caring for them, and bring greater awareness to the plight and conservation of species that are endangered, threatened or of special concern.

“They would be nowhere if we weren’t here,” said Testa, 61, who lives in Jamesport. “They would be dead.”

Turtles of all sizes — from tiny like Lilypad, a recently hatched baby Eastern painted turtle, to Sullivan, a 100-pound African spur-thighed tortoise — are housed in large, heavy-duty polyethylene tubs furnished with moss or grass, a heat lamp to simulate summer (so that they don’t go into hibernation and can be fed and medicated) and a carved-out log or other spot for hiding.

Turtles, Testa explained, have an instinct for protection from hawks and other watchful predators, and need to stay out of the open.

The center’s medical coordinator, Earl, who has a degree in marine biology from Southampton College, said helping sick and injured turtles is fulfilling work.

“You treat it and you slowly watch it come around and become a healthy turtle again,” said Earl, 43, who lives in Ridge. “There’s nothing like that feeling — you get a high off of that.”

Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons keeps detailed charts for each patient, including weight, feeding and medication schedules — and where each was found and will be returned. Nonnative turtles, which are illegal to release into the wild, are either kept at the center or adopted out. Since its inception 11 years ago, the organization has saved about 2,500 turtles, rehabilitating and releasing 95% of them, notes Testa.

Others, like Gaston, an Eastern box turtle born without eyes who arrived as a 13-gram hatchling nearly three years ago and now weighs 435 grams, won’t ever leave the center.

“He’ll stay for the rest of his life. When they can’t see, they can’t hunt,” Testa explained.

“We have over 200 patients here,” said Karen Testa, executive...

“We have over 200 patients here,” said Karen Testa, executive director of the organization. “They would be nowhere if we weren’t here.” Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Slow and steady

Growing up in Miller Place, Testa, 61, developed a lifelong love for animals, studied marine biology at Southampton College, and over the years has had a menagerie of pets, including dogs, cats, sheep, chickens, a parrot and, naturally, turtles.

“I have no kids, so when you have no kids, you tend to go to what makes your heart warm: and that was animals,” she said.

Working as a real estate broker, Testa found she had lots of time on her hands after the 2008 recession. She began volunteering at the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays, which rescues swans, foxes, hawks, woodchucks and other wildlife. In her two years at the center, she observed that they weren’t equipped to care properly for turtles.

“There was no room for them,” said Testa, who still dabbles in real estate to help pay the bills.

Besides space requirements, turtles, unlike birds and mammals, need specialized medications and their healing process — typically about a year — takes much longer than other animals.

“I felt like we [our team] needed to become experts in the field because someone had to do something for them,” Testa said. “They’re like the underdogs of wildlife in my eyes because they can’t move away from danger like most wildlife can.”

Testa and her co-workers at the center are New York State-licensed wildlife rehabilitators, and Testa has a separate license to possess native turtles at her facility.

Turtles do indeed have very particular medical and housing needs, notes Chris Strub, executive director of the Evelyn Alexander center.

“So having a specialist that we can rely on — when we get calls about turtles — is really huge for us because we know that they’re going to get excellent and very specific care for their needs,” Strub said, adding he’s even called upon Testa with questions about snake rehabilitation. “She just knows so much — not just about turtles — but about reptiles in general.”

Karen Testa takes the temperature of one of the turtles...

Karen Testa takes the temperature of one of the turtles being cared for at Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons in Jamesport. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Total turtle care

Realizing that Testa was looking to open a rescue center exclusively for turtles, Sal Caliguri, her partner, bought and donated a circa 1920 farmhouse in Jamesport that underwent a yearlong renovation including overhaul of the electrical and heating systems. Dubbed “Turtle Manor,” Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons officially opened its rehabilitation facility in May 2012.

Housed on two floors, the center has two ICU/trauma rooms for feedings, sutures, physical therapy and minor surgeries; a lab for X-rays, cultures and parasitology; a quarantine lab where infected turtles are separated from the rest; two release rooms for turtles healthy enough to go into the wild in May or June, when nighttime temperatures likely won’t fall below 60 degrees; and a separate floor just for aquatic turtles and permanent residents.

The 1-acre property includes a backyard animal sanctuary, with fenced-in fish- and frog-filled ponds of varying sizes and shapes where aquatic residents like 80-year-old King, a paralyzed snapping turtle, can live out their remaining years.

Working seven days a week, five volunteers and two paid employees do minor surgeries at the center. The organization also has a cadre of about 100 volunteers throughout Long Island who can be called upon to help with rescues. For major procedures, like orthopedic surgeries and amputations, Testa relies on Dr. Robert Pisciotta of Southold’s North Fork Animal Hospital, who volunteers his services.

The first time he went to the center to check on a terrapin, Pisciotta recalled being amazed at the setup Testa had created for the turtles’ care.

“It’s great for us, because we’re such a busy animal hospital,” Pisciotta said. “We get all these injured turtles and to provide them with the right environment and temperature and food — and everything that’s required — is challenging. And she does an amazing job.”

In addition to rescues of turtles, the center’s education director, Erika Haberkorn, often does outreach in schools, libraries, nature centers and Scouting groups to educate people about the threats and challenges facing turtles.

Turtles that are sold as pets are not native to New York. Every native turtle is protected by the New York Department of State, and it’s illegal to remove them from their habitat, Testa said.

“You need to keep them wild. You can’t bring them home. It’s like bringing a fox home — you can’t do that,” she said.

Currently, Turtle Rescue has about 75 permanent resident turtles. Some are blind, and others are missing limbs or have neurological issues, including many whose illness or genetic mutation was caused by chemical poisoning.

“They can’t get away from where the chemicals are sprayed. They just sit there and the chemicals are sprayed right over them,” said Testa, who recommends using garlic, rosemary or cedar oil, all natural pest and insect control products.

Other advice she offers to protect turtles: Cover your basement window wells, where turtles can get trapped; don’t boat in low, marshy water, where terrapins nest; and keep leashes on your dogs to prevent them from menacing turtles.

Karen Testa feeds a blind turtle at the organization's facility...

Karen Testa feeds a blind turtle at the organization's facility in Jamesport.  Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

If you spot a turtle

In April and May, turtles begin emerging from their six-month underground hibernation and can often be spotted on the side of a road, heading into traffic.

“They mate. They eat. They lay their eggs on land,” Testa said.

Turtles use their senses and instincts to forage for food and water and to locate mates and nesting areas.

A common misconception about turtles is that their shells are impervious to pain and destruction.

“It’s a bone that has living tissue, and they feel everything on their shell,” Testa said. “There’s blood flow in that shell. When that breaks, it’s like you or I breaking our skull or back.”

If you see a turtle in the road, Testa advises, put your flashers on, pull over and examine it to see whether he was hit. If there are no apparent physical injuries, check to see whether the turtle’s eyes are closed or the nose is bubbling, either of which is a sign of infection.

If the turtle doesn’t appear injured, you should place it out of harm’s way — in the direction it was heading. If you return the turtle to the direction it was coming from, it will likely try to make its way back where you found it — and in the path of traffic.

“You’re going to put him all the way, four lanes over, or however many lanes over into safety, meaning you can go as far as a football field, into the woods,” Testa said.

Use a towel, T-shirt or blanket to cover and calm the turtle, pick it up by putting one hand on each side toward the rear, as if holding a pizza box, and place it out of harm’s way in the direction it was headed. Never, Testa said, pick a turtle up by its tail.

“The tail is an extension of their spine, and [holding] it will paralyze them,” she said.

Though she is especially passionate about turtles, Testa believes that everyone should care about the reptiles, particularly since they’re considered a keystone species, so named for their outsize impact on the environment.

“They distribute seeds; they add calcium into the soil,” she said, adding that terrestrial turtles also transport vital microorganisms that keep the ecosystem balanced. “You remove them from our ecosystem, and it could collapse. The ecosystem has to balance and without one key species, we’re putting everything in jeopardy.” Aquatic turtles, Testa added, help maintain clean marine ecosystems by transporting an array of small crustaceans, remoras, algae and diatoms that live on them for brief periods.

As she reflects on the past 11 years of running Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, Testa says she never planned to be the person who’d rescue so many turtles.

“Your heart just breaks when you see the pain they go through,” she said, noting that trained turtle handlers know that closed eyes, an open mouth, wrangling of the head and hiding in their shell are signs of suffering. “We have gotten so many turtles back almost from the dead — because we know what we’re doing.”

HOW TO HELP

If you find a turtle that is injured or in harm’s way — in or near a roadway — and don’t know what to do, text a photo to Karen Testa of Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons at 516-729-7894. She can help guide you to where to seek emergency care. Sea turtles, for example, which are native to Florida, go to the New York Marine Rescue Center in Riverhead to be rehabbed. For more information or to donate to the nonprofit Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, visit turtlerescueofthehamptons.org.

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