How to Safely Help Turtles Cross Roads

It’s the season when turtles go a’wandering. They’re not lost. Instead, they’re looking for a good place to lay their eggs or to find a mate. Often, this means they attempt crossing roads, and too many are killed by motorists. Do your bit to help turtles get to the other side, but don’t put yourself at risk. With the help of an expert, Tamia shows the way.

by Tamia Nelson | February 1, 2018

When driving and cycling the roads each year, I’m discouraged by all the dead animals I see, and I do whatever I can to prevent them from being killed by motor vehicles. Most of the time, this means saving snakes, frogs, or turtles. It’s easy to lift snakes with a stick or bike pump and carry them to safety. Frogs are more difficult, but generally I can herd them to the sidelines. In many ways, turtles are the easiest to move. They don’t move as quickly as frogs, and they’re not slithery like snakes. But that doesn’t mean you can just lift them any old way. Snapping turtles, in particular, require special care. Neither you nor the turtle will benefit if you’re bitten and the turtle is dropped to the ground.

I wanted to be sure I knew the best way to help turtles get out of the road, so I contacted Kathy Michell to ask. Kathy is a turtle expert and wildlife rehabilitator at the New York Center for Turtle Rehabilitation and Conservation, Inc., and very kindly sent instructions and excellent photos shot by Tom Michell. Thanks very much, Kathy and Tom. What I found from Kathy confirmed that I’d been following the correct procedure, and I learned even more and wanted to pass it on.

Safely Saving Turtles So here’s the deal. You see a turtle in danger on the roadway or shoulder. What next? First and foremost, be safe. Do not jeopardize your life—never walk into the path of oncoming vehicles. Nighttime rescues are especially dangerous—if in doubt, don’t attempt it.

Pull to the road’s shoulder (don’t slam on the brakes!), use your flashers, and if possible park with the turtle ahead of you so that drivers are alerted and slow down. Always keep an eye on traffic. A companion is a big help, especially on busy roads, because one person can watch for traffic while the other carries the turtle to safety.

Where to Take Turtles Move the turtle to the side of the road she’s facing, and place her far enough off the road so that there’s no danger of being struck. Many turtles have home ranges and colonies, so moving a turtle to a different place can only encourage them to wander in search of home. In wandering, the turtle may well cross more roads.

NEVER Lift By the Tail Although it was once widely recommended, experts now warn that turtles should never be lifted by the tail. Doing so can cause irreversible spinal cord damage.

Proper Lifting & Carrying Lifting a turtle is easy when it’s small and docile. Just be sure that you have a good grip on the turtle so that he won’t wiggle away from you if he kicks in protest. Turtles might be wet or muddy, too, and that can make them slippery. Use care.

Lifting a Snapping Turtle - (c) Tom Michell Image on

Snapping Turtles and Large Turtles Turtles are very strong, and they have claws on their feet. When lifted, they might kick and try to snap at you, and if the turtle is a snapping turtle, he can give a painful bite—even small snappers are capable of snacking on a finger. Once lifted, carry the turtle low to the ground so he won’t fall far if he startles you or pushes your hand and loosens your grip. Kathy shows how it’s done in Tom’s photos here on this page.

Approach snappers from behind. Their necks are long, with the longest extension being foeward. The next longest extension is upward—remember this when leaning down to lift them. While snappers can extend their necks around to their sides, they cannot reach as far back as mid-body.

Lifting a Snapping Turtle Properly - (c) Tom Michell Image on

Once you’re near the turtle, carefully grab the turtle in both hands placed behind mid-body, with thumbs on the top shell and fingers below. Be firm but don’t use a crushing grip. The turtle may struggle, open his mouth, hiss, and lunge, and large ones can weigh 40 pounds or more. Be prepared for this, and remember to lift only a short distance above the ground. Scoot to the side of the road, gently place the turtle down, and back off. He might be annoyed but he’ll be alive.

Settling a Snapping Turtle - (c) Tom Michell Image on

Another way to lift a snapping turtle is to grab the top shell with one hand right behind the head and the other above the tail, though this can be a little dangerous for the hand approaching the head. Once grasped, though, the turtle’s mouth cannot reach the hand and arm as long as your arm rests along the turtle’s shell.

If touching the turtle unnerves you, you can be prepared for turtle rescue by carrying a sturdy snow shovel in your vehicle. Lift the turtle on the blade and carry her low to the ground till you can encourage her off the blade well off the side of the road. I once used a deep, large plastic storage tub to carry a very large snapper across the road. With a small shovel, I steered and encouraged the snapper to move into the tub by angling the tub’s edge under the body. Once inside, I could lift the tub and carry the turtle across the road.

Snapping Snapping Turtle - (c) Tom Michell Image on

A wounded turtle could have a new lease on life if put in the proper hands. All the Michells’ turtles shown here are rehabilitated turtles. But what to do if you find a turtle that’s been struck and isn’t yet dead? Ideally you’d pick up the turtle and any shell pieces, place them in a box with a soft cloth on the bottom, and keep the box in a dark place while transporting it to a wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife veterinarian. Some of these healers of the wild have learned the proper techniques for repairing broken shells and nursing turtles back to health.

If you care about wildlife, find a wildlife rehabber who lives near you and add his or her contact number to your cell phone’s phone book. Find a rehabber by contacting your state fish and game department or a local veterinarian. Do it now.

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions