Saranac Laker saves snapping turtles

Danielle Tooker, of Saranac Lake, holds a baby snapping turtle by the shore of Lake Flower. Lauren Yates/Adirondack Daily Enterprise

SARANAC LAKE — Before she rescued her first snapping turtle, Danielle Tooker said she didn’t know much about the state-protected species. Now, after more than two years, and helping nearly 400 baby snapping turtles reach safety in Lake Flower, Tooker has dedicated hundreds of hours to learning about and supporting local snapping turtle populations.

On a rainy night two years ago, Tooker, of Saranac Lake, was driving down Lake Flower Avenue on her way home when she spotted an adult snapping turtle sitting in the roadway near the tennis courts.

Its shell was badly cracked by a car or truck. Afraid someone would run over the almost 3-foot wide turtle again, Tooker pulled over to find that the turtle was a mother, her eggs spilling out of her cracked shell and all over the road. While Tooker moved the turtle to safety with a towel, a passing New York State Police officer pulled over to ask what she was doing. Tooker said she was parked oddly and thought that’s what drew their attention.

Police excused her from the scene, but when she asked what they planned to do with the eggs, she said they told her the eggs weren’t “viable.” Tooker said they left the eggs all over the road.

Tooker drove away from the scene, but she didn’t go very far. She waited down the road until the officer left, then returned to collect the eggs. She said the turtle was gone, but she gathered 28 intact eggs and took them home with her.

Tooker called the state Department of Environmental Conservation and a wildlife refuge to get some guidance on how to care for them. She learned how to incubate the eggs and how to keep the eggs as still and undisturbed as possible — otherwise, Tooker said, the membrane of the egg could separate and halt the turtle’s growth. She said that most likely due to what the rescued eggs went through on the road, only one of the eggs hatched, but after she released the baby snapping turtle into the water, Tooker was inspired to continue her turtle observations the next year.

“Her death wasn’t completely in vain,” she said of the hatchling’s mother.

By 2020, word had gotten around about Tooker’s rescue efforts. When someone found a turtle’s nest on a construction site, she said they usually called her to gather the eggs before heavy machines destroyed them. She started incubating the eggs, hatching them and releasing them. That year, she said she hatched around 70 rescued eggs.

But on a spring morning earlier this year, Tooker said her brother called her, saying he spotted two snapping turtles actively laying eggs by Lake Flower. Tooker didn’t want to disturb the eggs, but because of the roadside location of the nests, which were right next to the guard rail, she was afraid something or someone else might disturb the nests. Mother snapping turtles do not return to their nests after they lay them.

Tooker looked online to see how other people mark the location of snapping turtle eggs. Some use laundry baskets and shopping carts to place on top of the nests, but Tooker said all she had was firewood from her parents’ house. So that’s what she used.

She propped the logs up around the nesting holes, arranging them in a “V” with the opening pointed toward the river. That way, Tooker said the emerging baby turtles would be directed toward the water instead of the roadway. She also laminated some signs to tape to the logs that signaled the location and fragility of the nests to passersby.

Tooker said she was worried that locals wouldn’t understand or respect what she was doing with the turtles, or that an animal would find the nests and dig up the eggs, but this past week, Tooker watched dozens of baby snapping turtles make their way into Lake Flower. She observed an estimated 300 hatchlings this season.

While snapping turtles are not endangered, they are a protected species and Tooker said populations have been declining. She said protecting snapping turtles would naturally help control goose and waterfowl populations, which the area has struggled with in recent years. Snapping turtles prey on geese and waterfowl from underwater.

Tooker hopes to see the return of the turtles next June, which is nesting season. She said she’s thought about presenting her snapping turtle project to the Saranac Lake Village Board, since the nests are so centrally located and several members of the community have already shown their eagerness to help protect the turtles.

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