I have a pretty cool job. My 9-5 (sometimes 12-8 depending on the day), is a little different than the average desk position. I spend my day recruiting new turtle troopers from all over the province to add to our growing club of turtle heroes. Now you’re probably wondering how I do that? Well, the answer is through education. I am a summer student at the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, an Education Liaison of the Education department. It is my day-to-day duty to help facilitate programming that educates the public on the importance of our native turtle species population and how vital the wetland ecosystem truly is to the ecological integrity of our province.

McKenna carrying out day-to-day tasks at the OTCC. Weighing, feeding and hanging out with our turtle ambassadors.

Though I have only been part of this amazing team for a short period of time, we have managed to reach over thousands of members of the public whether that be through our virtual educational field trips, social media posts or inquiries by email. I have witnessed first-hand how effective these platforms can be in terms of empowering individuals to want to protect our turtles. Our programming provides a unique opportunity to experience a behind-the-scenes look into the work that is performed every day in the turtle trauma centre and learn about our eight species of turtles native to Ontario and how to help protect them by interacting with the centre’s education turtle ambassadors.

Some of the exciting projects McKenna has developed for the Education program at the OTCC during her time as a summer student.

Turtles are the fastest disappearing vertebrate on the planet, which can be quite surprising to most people. Once learning why this is, the shock factor decreases. We, as humans, have put turtles in this position. Filling in and degrading the wetland ecosystems for the benefit of the human agenda, early death by road mortality, poaching of turtles for the illegal pet trade industry, disturbing or moving turtle nests because they’re on “our” property, are all human-related reasons as to why we are losing our turtles. Turtles have been doing their thing for over 230 million years, they survived an asteroid and an ice age for crying out loud, we can’t be the ones to wipe them out!

But why? Why should we care? We hardly see turtles and when we do, they get scared and hide. Turtles serve a great purpose within the aquatic ecosystem. Turtles are omnivores, meaning their diet consists of meat and vegetation. Turtles are also scavengers so much of the meat consumed is in fact, deceased fish. Turtles eat the decaying matter found in the water which keeps bacteria levels low and in turn, keeps our waters fresh and clean. Turtles are also great seed dispersal agents. When turtles eat plants, they fertilize the seeds during digestion which in turn promotes new regrowth of vegetation in the aquatic ecosystems. New growth works to stabilize the bank and lessens erosion rates. Pretty important. I could go on and on about why turtles are so incredible and the numerous ways they help us out, but I challenge you to do some of your own research into why these species are worth protecting.

Awareness is crucial to reversing the damage we have caused. Awareness leads to connection, connection leads to passion and passion leads to advocacy. The information we provide in our programs can be digested by any age group. There is just something about being able to experience up close, even through a computer screen this year due to Covid-19 restrictions, the magic wildlife can have on our hearts. It is a captivating way to connect with these species that cannot be found on the pages of a textbook. Once we connect with these turtles, we are left with an undeniable passion that resonates within us and installs a sense of wanting to advocate for this species.

McKenna is often found behind the camera, taking care of the technical side of the virtual tours at the OTCC and learning from Education Coordinator, Wendy.

This passion was installed in me as a young person and from that moment I have dedicated my education and career to conserving our natural world and teaching others on how they can do the same. It is our hope here at the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre that this passion will be installed in you too and that we gain another turtle trooper. Whether your passion be displayed through volunteering at our centre, participating in citizen science projects, advocating for the construction of turtle crossing signs in your community, installing turtle nest protectors, sharing the knowledge you learn with others or something as simple as watching for and being mindful of turtles when on the road, all are helping conserve the population of Ontario’s turtles!

A great way to volunteer at the centre is to sign up for turtle releases. Once the injured turtles that come into the hospital are rehabilitated, we rely on volunteers to return them to their place of origin all over Ontario!

I’ve come to learn, especially from working at the centre, that education is our biggest superpower and our greatest hope of returning the turtle population to what it once was. It is ultimately up to us to fix the problem that we have created for this species as they cannot advocate for themselves. Once we become aware of the problem, we can educate ourselves and develop a plan on how we are going to help conserve this species for generations to come. Join the turtle hero club and become a turtle trooper today!