If Steve O’Neil had been around a few million years ago, we probably could have saved the dinosaurs.
O’Neil is a self-educated naturalist and self-proclaimed “wildlife warrior.” He works at Earthshine Mountain Lodge in Lake Toxaway as the staff naturalist and “turtle tracker.” He is filled with passion for teaching people the importance of natural things.
Part of his duties at Earthshine includes taking the lodge’s guests on turtle tracking expeditions. The Turtle Tracks project started, O’Neil says, when he discovered a badly injured turtle on a local highway. “I thought it had been hit by a car because it had a dark spot under it that looked like a puddle of blood.”
When he discovered that the turtle was still alive, O’Neil scooped her (males have red eyes and females have brown eyes) up and took her to the lodge. She survived overnight, so he took her to the vet. “He amputated what was left of her leg and sewed it up…and she got better and she’s still living with us now up at the lodge.”
“Tripod” (what else?) lives comfortably at the lodge with a handful of rehab turtles O’Neil and his friends have rescued from similar situations.
Finding a turtle traversing a road is not unusual in the Carolina woods. “I’ve always moved turtles off the road,” O’Neil says. “If you see them crossing the road, move them to the side their head is pointing toward. They know where they’re going. Science has shown that they know exactly where they’re going in their habitat, and if you move them somewhere else, it’s very confusing for them.”
Road crossings are particularly dangerous for the slow-moving reptiles. “I watched some people swerve to hit one,” O’Neil says, the indignation flaring in his eyes, “and it really burned me up to see that. To kill something that’s defenseless and can’t even run away…what kind of human is that? And then to do nothing about it, but laugh and keep going, which is what these people did. That was years ago and it just stabbed me in the heart and made me realize that we’ve got to educate people about wildlife or they’re not going to care. There are people who shoot turtles off of logs just for fun. They call it fun, but I don’t see how it can be. I deal with that all of the time.”
Teaching kids to respect and enjoy nature is the answer, he says. “Everybody loves turtles. You show a kid a turtle and it’s instant. They’re non-threatening, they’re pretty. Look at a box turtle; they’re beautiful animals, covered in yellows and oranges and reds. And they don’t run away, they don’t fight back.”
O’Neil and his trackers use electronic sending devices attached to the turtles’ shells to follow their movements and interactions. The program is unique in that most animal tracking is done by experts and reported in articles or film. O’Neil’s clients get to do the tracking themselves. “I teach them how it works,” he says. “I let the kids handle the antennae and the tracking device. Normally we won’t pick up any of the turtles, because if you touch them, they may change their behavior and we’re trying to record authentic behavior.”
Through the process, the amateur trackers come to appreciate the reptiles for the remarkable creatures they are. Turtles have an amazing capacity to heal themselves, a useful attribute for a slow-moving creature that can’t fight.
“Box turtles are one of the only animals in North America that can freeze,” O’Neil explains. “They can get ice crystals in their lungs, ice crystals around their hearts, around their brains…they can freeze pretty much solid for several hours, thaw out, and they’re perfectly fine. If you or I get ice crystals around our lungs and our brains, we’re dead.”
Not only are they vulnerable as adults, box turtles are even more at risk when they’re young. “The young ones,” says O’Neil, “are about the size of a quarter and they’re soft. Everything eats them. Wild turkeys will gobble them up. Copperheads and black snakes will eat them, but the biggest predators are raccoons, coyotes, foxes, dogs, and cats.”
It’s worth asking this turtle activist if people don’t consider his obsession a little bit odd. “Do they think I’m eccentric?” he ponders. “Maybe. Probably. But I don’t care. It’s my calling. Somebody’s got to do it. Ever since I was a little kid I knew that I had to do something with wildlife. I have this instinctive urge to teach people about what I think is important. I don’t know why, but I’m doing it…and people love it. We’ve had people come back and bring their families so that they could track turtles with me. And that makes me feel good.
“My whole reason for being is to teach people about the beauty of these creatures and why they are so important. Why are they so important? Well…because they’re here. They’re a part of history, a connection to ancient times.”