The Turtle Hospital 

The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre is a registered charity operating a hospital for Ontario’s native turtle species. Seven of the eight species of Ontario’s turtles are now listed as species at risk. Injuries to turtles from automobiles, boats, fish hooks, dogs, and humans, are second only to habitat destruction, as a cause for many of the species’ decline.

While other species of wildlife are also injured and killed on our roads, most animals have young from the previous year ready to mate and replenish the population. Unfortunately, this is not the case for turtles. Less than 1% of turtle eggs and hatchlings will survive to adulthood. This, combined with the fact that turtles can take anywhere from 8 to 25 years to reach maturity, means that it can take 200 eggs and up to 25 years to replace one nesting female killed on the roadside. Every turtle saved is beneficial to the population.

OTCC is the only wildlife rehabilitation centre dedicated solely to providing medical and rehabilitative care to Ontario turtles. Once healed these turtles are released back into their natural habitat where they can continue to reproduce for many decades.

In 2009, we admitted a total of 50-80 turtles per year. This number has climbed steadily as people across the province learn about the work we do and the importance of turtles to their ecosystems. The admission numbers have steadily climbed, and 2017 saw 920 admitted turtles!

The centre operates under the leadership of Executive Director Dr. Sue Carstairs, Medical Director for the Turtle Hospital.  The centre is supported by a province-wide network of local veterinarians, private clinics, and other wildlife centres who perform admissions and emergency care. Visit the Turtle Drop-off page for a list of drop-off locations and more information about what to do if you find an injured turtle.

The Turtle Hospital – 2017 Update 

We are finally updating our hospital page!  We have been so busy saving turtles, that this page has been sadly neglected. We will be adding more content about the amazing work that the hospital carries out, in the following weeks!

We have saw 920 cases in 2017 – that’s 920 turtles brought to our hospital for care, with thanks to good Samaritans across the province.   These turtles come from across their home range in Ontario.  Southern Ontario is THE place for turtles in Canada, with a higher concentration and number of species than anywhere else in Canada.

The majority of cases brought to the hospital are turtles that have been injured on our roads. You can’t go more than 1.5 km in southern Ontario without running into a road.  Since our turtles often cover many kilometers in search of mates, feeding grounds, preferred summer hang-outs, and nesting sites, they invariably encounter roads in their travels.  Both male and female turtles are actively crossing land, during the spring months.  In fact, we see about 50% males and 50% females.  Males tend to move earlier than females, and we see them out early spring and throughout the summer.  Females tend to have a large peak in admissions during the peak nesting time in June.

The figure to the right shows our admissions for 2017, from across the turtle’s home range in Ontario.

Road Density map for southern Ontario.

Unfortunately, the highest density for roads is also the highest density for turtles!

The injuries we see vary greatly but are generally very rewarding to treat since turtles have incredible resilience and their healing ability is probably better than any other species. It takes a dedicated team of professionals in the hospital, and a lot of time, but the results can be astounding.

As an example, here is a case of a snapping turtle that was hit by a car on June 1, 2017. Head injuries are very common in snapping turtles since they cannot protect their head in their shells as other turtle species can. When he first came in, the severity of his injuries was clear. He was given strong pain medication and fluids, and his general condition was stabilized before surgery was attempted. He was then anesthetized so that he could be put back together.  He was very quiet for a long time and had to be kept in very shallow water to prevent drowning. Fast forward to August 15, and he is now very difficult to keep confined, and is slated for release this week!

Below shows his progress; from left to right- first admission, under anesthesia, and climbing out of his container keen to go home! He is very alert, has normal eyesight, and is very nimble.  A true success story!

Another common reason for admission to our hospital is ingestion of fishing hooks.  It is now illegal in Ontario to fish for any species of turtle, but turtles do still sometimes accidentally ingest hooks. These can cause significant problems as you can imagine!  Removal is seldom easy, and requires anesthesia and often the use of an endoscope to retrieve them. With thanks to funding from the Gordon and Patricia Gray Animal Welfare Foundation, we were able to purchase an endoscope that allows retrieval of these hooks from the stomach. Notice in the X-ray to the left, that this painted turtle also has had surgery to repair a shell fracture (see the wires in his hind end).  The fish hook was found while we were doing routine X-rays and wasn’t even the reason for admission!

Above Left to Right 

 Using our endoscope to remove a fishing hook/Suturing a wound/Examining a blood film from a turtle.

Some amazing ‘Before’ (LEFT) & ‘After’ (RIGHT) shots to show how amazing turtles are at healing!

Emergency Medical Care

OTCC is well known throughout Ontario and receives injured turtles from every corner of the province. Because prompt medial care can be the difference between life and death, OTCC holds Turtle Trauma Workshops to help train veterinarians and rehabilitators from a variety of organizations across Ontario. Once stabilized, the turtles are transferred to the OTCC facility for ongoing care until they are ready to be released back into the wild. Our network of over 100 Turtle Taxi volunteers is instrumental in the transport of injured turtles from all parts of Ontario, often taking part in a ‘turtle relay’ to cover long distances and get our patients admitted to OTCC quickly for ongoing care.

Injuries &Treatment

The turtle’s shell is made of bone, covered by a modified ‘skin’. When a turtle’s shell is fractured, putting it back together is therefore actually orthopedic surgery! We repair fractures with a variety of different methods depending on the species and type of fracture.

We stabilize the fracture sites initially using an adhesive and tape. The pieces are then often wired, using orthopedic wire and holes drilled with a dental drill, under anesthetic.

One thing we no longer recommend for traumatic fractures, is the use of epoxy patches.These tended to hide underlying infection, and make it impossible to see or treat this. This often would lead to a fatal infection developing.

Although the fracture of the shell is the most obvious injury, it is often the internal damage that is more life threatening. Just like any animal that has undergone extensive trauma, the turtle undergoes shock in the same way. This is why access to timely veterinary care is so important to have the greatest chance of saving them.

Facial injuries are also common. Fractured jaws are wired in a similar manner to mammals, using orthopedic wire to reunite the pieces. Of course, anesthetic is always needed for this. Other surgeries frequently performed, include surgery to remove fishing hooks. These can become lodged in the head, mouth, stomach or intestines, and can easily become fatal. Turtles are also brought in for non-traumatic injuries, including abscesses of the ‘ears’, generalized infections, and pneumonia.

Turtle Nursery

Each turtle admitted to OTCC – once stabilized with fluids, painkillers, antibiotics, and wound management – is x-rayed to check for internal injuries and to see the females are still carrying eggs. If there are eggs, we provide the turtle with a nesting box, so she can lay her eggs naturally. The eggs are then moved to a nest container and incubated in our Turtle Nursery. Most hatchlings are quickly released back in the ponds and marshes near to where their mother was found. But those who hatch later in the fall are kept over the winter, to give them more of a “headstart” in life, and are released in spring.

Take a look inside the nursery:

Recovery & Release

painted turtle being returned to the wild

Turtles are released back into the wild once healed

Turtles are held at the OTCC until they are fully healed. Some turtles admitted early in the season can be released later in the same season. However, many require an overwinter stay. All the fixation devices are removed prior to release, and it is important to release the turtles very close to where they were rescued from. We usually look for the nearest body of water, within 1km of their rescue site. This is best for the turtles, and this is also the law.

The Role of Outreach

OTCC runs an extensive outreach and education program with goals of decreasing the number of turtles injured injured, decreasing rates of poaching for food or the pet trade, and increasing habitat saved for future generations of turtles. Visit the outreach and education program page to learn more.

Rehabilitation Standards

Th OTCC adheres to the laws and practices laid out by government of Ontario. Our authorization is issued to us by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and covers reptiles only. This means that we can rehabilitate native reptiles but not other native animals. We focus on turtles only. We cannot treat pet turtles.

For more information on wildlife rehabilitation in Ontario please read:

The Minimum Standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation, 3rd Edition

We follow the rehabilitation standards developed by the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA). The Minimum Standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation, 3rd Edition, is based on accepted norms in biology, medicine, behavior, natural history, and, of course, wildlife rehabilitation. The information in this publication pertains to all who rehabilitate wildlife, regardless of numbers and types of wildlife cared for, budget size, number of paid or volunteer staff, and size and location of activity.