Over the winter, the SoundWaters nature education center in Stamford got an unexpected donation: 22 baby diamondback terrapins rescued from an international turtle-smuggling ring.
SoundWaters director Leigh Shemitz says the baby turtles came by overnight mail from Anchorage, Alaska. That’s where U.S. customs officials found more than 200 of them, in her words, “Stuffed into buckets and boxes and boots on their way to China.”
These turtles are native to the East Coast and the Gulf Coast, but there's a black market for them in southeast Asia. They would have ended up as turtle soup there. Instead, they’re living at nature conservancies and programs like SoundWaters across the country.
"They had a really unfair start in life,” Shemitz says. “They were taken from somewhere- actually, no one knows where- they were smuggled, they were dehydrated, they were desiccated. Many died. And we're committed to providing them with a really great future."
Sadly, one of them has died since arriving at SoundWaters. And Shemitz says it’s unlikely all of the remaining 21 will make it. But most of them are doing pretty well. They’re still babies, just a couple inches across, and you can see the distinctive diamond-shaped patterns on their shells.
"Their current life is pretty darn plush,” Shemitz says. They get to swim, play, eat and even get their shells cleaned with toothbrushes. Most animals never get this kind of individual attention, let alone animals that almost became soup.
“There are definitely personalities among these guys,” says educator Robin Serabia as she brushes one turtle’s shell. “This one, for example, is not afraid of anything and never stops eating, ever.”
SoundWaters is going to use these turtles to teach kids some basic biology and ecology- from the way the patterns on their shells form, to the conservation efforts to protect them. For more on SoundWaters, visit their website.