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Turtle rescue group has saved 1,500 'underdogs' of wildlife world

Karen Testa, executive director of Turtle Rescue of

Karen Testa, executive director of Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, says the 9-year-old center has helped about 1,500 turtles who have been injured by human activity or abandoned as pets. Credit: Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, Inc.

Over the past year Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons has saved about 220 turtles and is now caring for more than 100 of the reptiles, says the group's executive director.

"They're the underdogs of the wildlife world," said Karen Testa, of the not-for-profit rescue group. "They've been around since the dinosaurs, about 200 million years. We can't stop now."

Since its inception in Hampton Bays in 2009, Turtle Rescue, now located in a Jamesport farmhouse on the North Fork, has helped to save and rehabilitate more than 1,500 turtles from a variety of native — and non-native — species.

Testa, who grew up in Miller Place and studied marine biology at LIU Southampton, began volunteer work at an animal rescue facility years ago in East Hampton. But, she said, seeing that mammal and avian wildlife seemed to take priority, she decided to focus on saving — and rehabilitating — sick, wounded and at-risk turtles.

Her turtles run the gamut.

There are turtles that have been wounded by boat propellers, struck by lawn mowers, poisoned by lawn and farmland chemicals and pesticides, and injured by motor vehicles as they tried to cross roads and highways.

Most are from local native species: Eastern mud; Eastern spotted; Eastern box; diamondback terrapins or brackish water turtles; and the common snapping turtle, which Testa says is the official New York State reptile.

"Most of these species," she said, "are protected by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation — and we're licensed under the DEC to protect them. We've got turtles who've got damaged shells, who are amputees, who've been blinded, who've been … caught in crab traps. … Since the pandemic hit, we've definitely seen an increase in chemical poisoning."

Testa said state law requires all crab traps to have a TED — or Turtle Entrapment Device — door that allows trapped turtles to get out. Her organization supplies those doors for free.

Sometimes, she said, Long Islanders turn turtles into pets.

"People take them from the wild," she said. "You can't do that, it's illegal. But they'll say, 'It wasn't out in the wild. It was in my driveway.' I tell them, that's the wild. It might be on your property, but that's the wild, their environment."

Turtles are slow to heal, Testa said. Most of the turtles now in the shelter's care have been undergoing rehabilitation for more than a year, one for five years.

Some species can live 100 years, Testa said.

Winter hibernation affects when turtles can be released back into the wild, she said. Spring is usually when Turtle Rescue releases rehabilitated turtles.

About 95% of all turtles treated by Turtle Rescue are released back into the wild, Testa said.

Turtle Rescue in a not-for-profit organization and relies on donations, which can be made at its website http://www.turtlerescueofthehamptons.org.

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