As parents we teach our children to care about the environment, love nature, treat living things with respect, and to want to make a difference in the world. At times this aspect of parenting may feel thankless, or frustrating, or just exhausting. And I don’t know which makes it harder, the kids or the frustrating world in which they live. But we cheerfully carry on in the belief that being a parent is the most important job in our lives.
My kids are grown now, and while my parenting is done, I am fortunate that they continue to teach and challenge me. In part this comes from the unique paths they have each chosen, allowing me to learn stuff I would never have expected. For instance; I had never heard of spiny soft shell or map turtles a couple of years ago, let alone seen them. There were plenty of painted and snapping turtles in my Ontario summers, but none of the above, nor Blanding’s turtles, or the fascinating stinkpot.
Our eldest daughter has become a conservation biologist. For my husband and me this translates into summer trips following our daughter around Ontario to acquaint ourselves with these new (for me) species, and yes, I have become acquainted; I’ve netted them, tended to their eggs, helped draw blood for DNA work, and chauffeured injured ones to the turtle trauma centre in Peterborough. Indeed, we are blessed to have a centre close by which will tend to wounded turtles.
Ontario turtles are threatened by the usual suspects: habitat loss, cars, nest predators (raccoons, skunks etc). And our daughter has spent the past few summers attempting to give them a fighting chance. Among other things, this has meant tramping through marshes and along beaches in southwestern Ontario, with some very dedicated research assistants as they interfere with turtle nests.
Let me explain. Before they abandon their young to an uncertain fate, turtle moms leave the water, waddle a considerable way, use their hind flippers to dig a hole in the sand or gravel, and finally deposit their eggs, 20 on average. Then the race begins, to see who will get at the nests first – humans or raccoons. Often the animals have a feast before these intrepid young biologists get there. Nevertheless, this year my daughter’s team rescued over 2,000 eggs of spiny soft shell, map and snapping turtles, labeled them, and incubated them until in early August the first ones finally hatched. When a baby turtle starts to open its shell it’s called ‘pipping’. Over a short struggle with their egg-shell these perfect wee turtles emerge, ready to hit the water. First they are given identification markings and their vital statistics are carefully noted. At last they are returned to their original nesting site, chosen so carefully by their mothers before they walked back to the lake.
This brings me to the moment a couple of weeks ago when we accompanied our daughter, granddaughter and a couple of research assistants to a beach on Lake Erie, to release this season’s first 350 hatchlings. This wasn’t my first time helping launch these beautiful tiny creatures into their very precarious lives. Nevertheless, it was awe inspiring to hold these perfect little beings, so energetic and ready for life, as they enter the water for the first time and scrabble off into their future.
Turtles are a small piece of the wonder that Ontario nature offers. They are rarely seen, and some may think them insignificant. But they deserve the same care, respect and love as fellow beings on our planet as large mammals, exotic birds, and old growth forests that are the stuff of nature shows. My daughter, her research assistants, generous donors, park management and others made the release of 350 hatchlings possible that day. Some of those wee creatures will grow to maturity, increasing the probability of survival for these species. They also have many parents to thank, parents who instilled a fascination and respect for living things, and a sense of responsibility and the ability to care about the natural world. So don’t be discouraged; carry on having fun exploring the world with your kids while you share your values and maybe teach them a thing or two. Who knows where it will take them in a few years?