by Chris Clark
TURTLE SURVIVAL CENTER: A PERSONAL ENCOUNTER WITH ENDLESS DEDICATION
As a full-time RV’er for the past year, the Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina was on my short list of “must see” places. Although I’ve been a TSA member since 2010, I did not have an appreciation for what goes on at the Center until I recently spent time there as a volunteer.
I planned to stay for four days, and ended up staying for four weeks. Why? The amount of time, energy and resources that go into caring for 700+ endangered turtles and tortoises is far more than I could imagine … and the dedication of the five on-site professional staff is its key to success. It was a privilege to work alongside the people of the TSC (in what this ‘city gal’ found to be challenging circumstances), and I’m pleased to be able to share my experience in this way.
There’s no such thing as an 8-hour day or a 5-day week at the TSC, which in reality requires 24/7 vigilance. Everyone takes intense personal responsibility for the collection of 700+ endangered animals. At a maintenance level, the turtles are fed three days a week, which means the following four days are spent monitoring the results and cleaning up in a dozen buildings and outdoor settings. Water changes and tank cleaning are conducted on an ongoing basis, especially needed in the hot, humid environment of South Carolina’s Lowcountry.
During the spring/summer breeding season, females are monitored for egg development, with new eggs identified and incubated in anticipation of successful hatchings. Sick animals are treated in a professional clinic setting and new and/or contagious animals are isolated and treated in a remote quarantine building. The extensive natural setting requires ongoing maintenance, and the Center continues to expand its capacity through new building projects … all accomplished by five staff members, along with help from much-needed greatly appreciated volunteers.
A bit of historical context for those of you who (like me) may not know how this remarkable project came to be: The Turtle Survival Center was conceived after a friend of Cris Hagen (TSA’s Director of Animal Management) offered the use of the property to keep turtles. TSA executives approved Cris’ proposal in early 2012 and by summer a capital campaign was underway, kicked off by a major donor. The property was purchased in January 2013, and construction started in March 2013.
Over the first eight months, a skeleton crew undertook the major task of repurposing the property while Cris traveled back and forth across the state of South Carolina weekly to bring hundreds of turtles and tons of equipment (literally!) to the Center. I find it nothing less than amazing that the Center became operational by October … until you get to know the dedicated people who work together to make things happen!
Here’s my brief introduction to the team in the order they joined the TSC. My sincere hope is that this personal report will inform and inspire other TSA supporters about the vital mission of the Turtle Survival Center.
CRIS HAGEN, DIRECTOR OF ANIMAL MANAGEMENT
A founding member of the TSA in 2001 and an employee since 2010, Cris is responsible for the strategic development and management oversight of captive turtle assurance colonies throughout the U.S.A. (including the TSC) to support the conservation mission of the TSA. He is responsible for overseeing all aspects of animal husbandry at the TSC , including the annually reviewed, continually evolving collection plan, records keeping, moving and exchanging animals and communicating/collaborating with a worldwide network, which can range from questions from amateur turtle enthusiasts to the deep science of chelonian experts.
With a life-long interest in reptiles and amphibians, Cris had an extensive collection of turtles long before the TSC became a reality. He came of age during the 1970s-80s, when there was no real science or regulations – or even much interest – in these species. His hobby became a profession as he became more involved in conservation efforts, which were becoming ever more urgent in the face of population growth and displacement of native species.
Prior to his move to the TSC, Cris spent 11 years as Herpetologist and Genetics Research Technician at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, the University of Georgia’s Research Facility in Aiken, South Carolina. Working in the Molecular Lab, he specialized in using DNA sequencing as a wildlife forensics tool, developing microsatellite primers for hundreds of species and doing extensive fieldwork with American alligators and turtles.
I was struck by Cris’ dedication to building this precious bank of the world’s most critically endangered chelonians. Although the hope is to someday release these animals back into the wild, he knows there’s little chance it will happen for many of them in his lifetime. Cris takes the long view of his role in “preserving options for these species, and in providing an opportunity for people to learn about and appreciate this unique natural heritage.”
SHEENA KOETH, VETERINARY CARE MANAGER
A long-time member of the TSA, Sheena helped with fundraising and other aspects of the TSA in her beginnings with the organization. She was selected for her position based on extensive experience and interest in turtles, and has primary responsibility for the health of the 700+ endangered animals at the Turtle Survival Center.
Sheena runs the clinic and quarantine operations of the Center, consulting as needed with chelonian veterinarians and other animal-health professionals. Her work is remarkably wide-ranging, as there is relatively little knowledge about chelonian health compared to other species. She spends her time identifying health problems and treating animals, researching best practices and providing advanced care for infectious diseases and preserve each individual. She’s also on call as an expert veterinary technician specializing in turtles, and has travelled around the world for emergency confiscation triage.
I found Sheena to be extremely flexible, as her caseload can change in unpredictable ways. While I was there, the clinic held numerous turtles seized in a confiscation, along with a few animals being treated for fungal, bacterial, parasitic and other infections. The quarantine building has four separate rooms for species isolated for various reasons, along with a necropsy room where much can be learned post-mortem about factors impacting the health of individual species.
Joining the Center in June 2013, Sheena came from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, where she spent 13 years as an Animal Health Technician. She was drawn to the opportunity at the TSC to do direct conservation full-time as her vocation, and to make an impact on conservation medicine. As Sheena noted, “in chelonian captive conservation, the opportunity to learn is endless.”
CAROL ALVAREZ, OPERATIONS SPECIALIST
If Carol’s title sounds vague, it’s because she’s a true generalist! She does whatever is needed to help construct and maintain the buildings and grounds at the Center to ensure the animals’ wellbeing. Here we see her at work with a special helper, her animal-loving grand-daughter Kera.
Because she was employed by the previous owner, Carol has extensive knowledge of the property. She worked on the original fencing and structures, and started volunteering at the new Center in summer 2013. By autumn her wide-ranging skills and knowledge were recognized as essential, and she was formally invited to join the team.
A good example of her skills can be seen in the new intern house, where she helped customize the interior and did everything from electrical work to structural finishing. With the assistance and advice of her contractor stepfather Clarence, Carol has been instrumental in ongoing improvements to the TSC’s physical facility and grounds.
She finds purpose in doing her part to save animals from extinction, and to widen the gene pool to strengthen the various species. In order for the TSC to fulfill its mission, Carol knows that animals must want to breed – and for that to happen, they must be happy with their environment, food and care. She works toward that goal, and takes heart in the belief that the “living example of the TSC helps strengthen the connection between animals and humans”.
NATHAN HAISLIP, FACILITIES MANAGER AND LEAD KEEPER
Nathan’s responsibilities are as wide-ranging as his title when he joined the TSC three years ago. He’s in charge of implementing major construction for animal enclosures and other buildings, and also works closely with the Director of Animal Management to implement and manage husbandry protocols, including diet and nutrition. Here he’s pictured in the new Cuora Complex II, with 90 enclosures that will hold up to 180 animals. Nathan makes it very clear that everything he’s overseen was accomplished with help from lots of amazing volunteers.
While doing research for his Master’s degree at the Knoxville Zoo, Nathan experienced the role of zoos and aquariums in conservation in North America and around the globe. His eyes were opened, and he decided to go into the zoo field. He then worked at the Ft. Worth Zoo for four years as Reptile and Amphibian Keeper, responsible primarily for turtles and frogs. There he was also exposed to the work of the TSA and its work in the field and the breeding of species.
Nathan came to the Center as a volunteer after the devastating 2014 ice storm, which solidified his interest in the TSC as it was getting off the ground. He welcomed “the opportunity to make an impact on a broader scale, and to affect reptile conservation in a personal way.”
CLINTON DOAK, CHELONIAN KEEPER
Clint is the newest member of the TSC team, joining two years ago, although he was a member of the TSA before being hired. Prior to coming to the Center, he worked at the Ft. Worth Zoo’s Museum of Living Arts (the reptile building), where he cared for the terrestrial ectotherms (a more accurate description than ‘cold-blooded’.)
Having worked alongside Clint on his rounds, I was stunned at the amount of time, energy and resources that are needed to care for such a large and growing collection. The work is cyclical, endless, and at the same time gratifying.
I view Clint’s role as the first line of defense in the well-being of the hundreds of animals at the TSC. The turtles are under his ongoing observation and care, which enables him to watch for changes in feeding or other unusual behaviors. Clint provides day-to-day care of the animals, responsible for feeding, monitoring well-being and looking for possible medical conditions. He also assists with pairings for breeding, with the goal of expanding the collection and enhancing the viability of individual species.
Clint and other staff are very careful about the use of resources at the TSC. He makes weekly trips to Charleston to pick up donated produce, and often followed behind me to turn out lights when leaving a room. It struck me as a natural move for Clint to join the TSC, where he has the opportunity to “build on a life-long passion for turtles.”
Gail Henrickson TSA Member,
Donor and now Volunteer
(while on the road in my home state of Minnesota)