Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Children get a quick lesson on turtles at Meadowside

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Justin Hester, 2, checks out a box turtle during the ‘‘Turtles Alive” program at Meadow Nature Center last Friday. His mother, Mirjam Hester (left), looks on.
Several excited youngsters came out of their shells Friday afternoon for Meadowside Nature Center’s ‘‘Turtles Alive!” program as they met the star of the show, a real, live Eastern box turtle.

The program at the Rockville nature center featured a story about a box turtle, an arts and crafts activity, and the hard-shelled friend.

After the children had settled down on the rug, Meadowside volunteer Becky Lessey began reading ‘‘Box Turtle at Long Pond” by William T. George.

As she read, she showed the pictures to the participants and smiled at their comments, especially when the children expressed their disgust over the main staple of a box turtle’s diet — worms.

Once Lessey had finished reading, Meadowside naturalist Glenn Rice brought an Eastern box turtle into the room.

‘‘I know that he’s a boy because of the color of his eyes, which are red,” Rice explained, adding that female box turtles have brown or orange eyes.

‘‘I also know he’s a boy because of the little indentation on the underside of his shell,” he added, noting that the area is flat on females.

Tapping a knuckle on the turtle’s shell, also known as the carapace, Rice said a turtle’s outer layer could withstand an incredible amount of weight.

‘‘Believe it or not, any one of you could stand on his shell and it wouldn’t break,” he said. ‘‘It can withstand up to 200 pounds.”

Rice also described the characteristics of box turtles and that they are named as such because of the way they close up in their shells — like a box.

‘‘We believe he’s in his 30s,” he said, holding up the turtle again. ‘‘He’s not that old for a turtle.

‘‘He’s not that old for a person either,” Rice added, which caused several parents to laugh.

On average, he said box turtles could live up to 75 years.

‘‘Can you imagine having a pet for 75 years?” Rice asked the children.

Some of the children nodded while others slowly shook their heads. He said it is for that reason and several others that box turtles do not make good pets.

‘‘Would you really want to dig for worms every day?” Rice asked, and then laughed when one enthusiastic boy said he would not mind at all.

After his talk about the turtle, Rice let the children touch the critter’s shell, but asked that they not touch his head or tail.

Once everyone had had a turn, Rice put the turtle back in its tank. He and fellow naturalist Melanie Marshall handed out small, fabric and sand-filled salamanders and frogs for the children to color.

As she watched both of her sons play and color, Olney resident Mirjam Hester said she took her boys to the program to learn about turtles and to play with other children.

‘‘[We came for] the turtles and we come from Switzerland, so I thought the interaction might help improve their English,” she said.

Hester noted that her both of her sons, 2-year-old Justin and 4-year-old Yanick, enjoyed touching the turtle and feeling its shell.

Carl Rubino said he and his 2-year-old son, Rafi, live practically across the street from the nature center and often visit to see Meadowside’s animals and birds or attend programs.

‘‘Rafi loves animals, especially turtles and rabbits,” he said. ‘‘And owls — he likes owls, too.”

Marshall, who has been a naturalist at Meadowside for 20 years, said ‘‘Turtles Alive!” is just one of many programs that the nature center offers.

‘‘We have really diversified our programs to suit the community around us,” she said.

‘‘It’s a little bit of something for everyone,” Marshall added, noting that sometimes the nature center holds as many as five to six programs a day.

Still, she said she wishes more families would visit the center.

‘‘We’re one of the best-kept secrets and we don’t want it that way,” Marshall said.

When asked about turtles, she said she really does not believe turtles make good pets because ‘‘people get bored very quickly with them” and they are difficult to take care of. Marshall added that their diet is also very specific and that if they are not fed and taken care of properly, turtles can get sick and ‘‘go downhill very quickly.”

All turtles, she said, can carry salmonella, so she encourages people to wash their hands after touching a turtle. Marshall said the Eastern box turtle that Rice showed was a pet that someone took to the nature center because he no longer wanted it. Once in captivity, turtles are also difficult to release because they no longer know how to fend for themselves, she said.

Marshall said the nature center harbors eight turtles.

Officer Mike Lathroum, a spokesman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, said pet stores in the state can sell turtles, but only specific types and their shells have to be at least four inches long. ‘‘We’ve seized a large number of small turtles this year,” he said.

There are also native species, such as the Eastern box turtle, that can be collected from the wild and owned without a permit. But for others, Lathroum said, owners would have to possess a permit from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

He said the Department of Natural Resources governs which turtles can be sold in stores, collected from the wild, owned with and without a permit or certificate of ownership, and which turtles can be re-released into the wild.

To learn more

For more information about Maryland Department of Natural Resources regulations governing turtles, visit http:⁄⁄www.dnr.state.md.us.

For more information on Meadowside Nature Center, call 301-924-4141 or visit www.meadowsidenature.org.