Keeping pace with turtles

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Why did the turtle cross the road?

Maybe to soak up the warmth of the sun beating down on the pavement. To mate or lay eggs. Or perhaps, experts say, just to get to the other side.

Whatever the reason, the shell-covered reptiles can turn winding gravel roads and even the fast-paced pavement of the interstate into an obstacle course for Southeast Missouri motorists at this time of the year.

The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates that thousands of the state's 21 turtle species are killed each year by vehicles.

Some of those end up temporarily in the front yard of Rob Dillon, a local theater/ drama professor who fell in love with turtles as a child growing up along the Gasconade River.

A brick enclosure complete with vegetation and a small pond in front of Dillon's Cape Girardeau home holds a variety of turtles both native and foreign to Missouri.

Dillon's interest in the reptiles has given him quite a reputation.

"People bring them to us if they've been hurt. We keep them for a while and then let them go someplace nice," he said.

There are some permanent reptilian residents at the Dillon home, including the 90-pound African Sucata turtle C.J., the yellow-bellied slider Ariel and some native box turtles.

"There's something very simple about them. They look like they're wearing a constant half-smile," Dillon said.

Dillon doesn't recommend keeping turtles as pets unless someone is willing to invest time and effort into researching the proper diet and environment.

Officials with the Missouri Department of Conservation echoed those thoughts.

The department requires a special permit to keep some turtles as pets, although others, such as the common box turtle, may be kept without a permit. However, Sarah Scheper, an education specialist with the department's nature center in Cape Girardeau, warns against moving turtles.

"We don't want people to take them home and keep them. The place they found them is the best place for them," she said.

335-6611, extension 128

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