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Getting from nest to pond can be a struggle for hatchlings, especially when the way is blocked by infrastructure and pedestrians. These Indigenous-guided volunteers work to make the journey safer

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On a September day, snapping-turtle hatchlings lie in a metal pan at King’s Mill Park in Toronto, awaiting release into a nearby bog.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Every spring, crowds flock to Toronto’s High Park to enjoy the sight of dozens of cherry trees blooming pink and white against the sky. But while looking up, people are missing what’s happening on the ground.

What is less well known about the hilly grove is that it is also a hot spot for turtles. Cherry blossom season coincides with midland painted turtle hatchling season, inadvertently creating a battleground between selfie-taking crowds and the tiny reptiles.

From late May to July, turtle mothers will lay their eggs on land, burying them on sandy or gravel slopes to protect them from potential predators and flooding.

Depending on the weather, turtles take 60 to 90 days to hatch, typically emerging in mid-August. Midland painted turtle babies spend the winter in their nest after hatching from their eggs, emerging only the following late April or May.

In High Park, the most common species of turtles are the snapping turtle, the midland painted turtle and the non-native red-eared sliders. Except for painted turtles, which are the highest order of animal that can survive freezing, any hatchlings underground over winter will not survive.

Turtles return to the same area to lay their eggs each year, meaning that visitors who spot a nesting turtle are likely to see that same turtle return to nest the following years as well.

These turtles are being released by Carolynne Crawley, who co-founded Turtle Protectors in 2022.
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Ms. Crawley and Joyce Clitheroe find a stray snapping turtle on a trail path. They collect it to make sure it reaches the pond safely.Photos by Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Carolynne Crawley, who has Mi’kmaw, Black and Irish ancestry and belongs to the Turtle Clan, is co-founder of Turtle Protectors, the Indigenous-guided stewardship program she started only one year ago that aims to protect at-risk turtles who nest in High Park.

Ms. Crawley first felt compelled to protect the turtles when she came across a giant nesting snapping turtle during one of her walks in the park, and was awed by the magic of the moment.

Jenny Davis, who previously worked with the High Park Nature Centre, and Amyris Rada, who was a participant of the centre’s program, shortly joined in the efforts to create Turtle Protectors.

With the help of a hotline for people to report turtle sightings and with wire-mesh nest protectors donated by the city, they were able to protect 27 nests in their first year and 47 this year. The average clutch of eggs can range from four to 40 eggs, depending on the species of turtle, and the group has high hopes that many more will be saved in the future.

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A baby turtle's journey begins at nests like these in High Park, shown in May when cherry-blossom petals (and footprints from visitors) cover the ground.

High Park, a popular destination for cherry-blossom viewing, is filled with potential hazards for baby turtles: Ledges and stairs can impede their journey from nest to pond.
Last year, Turtle Protectors safeguarded nests with 20 wire-mesh screens like this one that Alice Wang is repairing. Most were damaged by people stepping on them.
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These red-eared slider hatchlings, held by Turtle Protectors co-founder Jenny Davis, died on their journey last year and were preserved for science. The species is not native; pet owners sometimes release them into the wild, where they are not well-adapted to cold weather. In captivity, they can live for 30 years.

On June 2, Turtle Protector volunteers watch a midland painted turtle, the first one sighted this season, lay eggs in a hole it dug in the grass. Once the mother has camouflaged the hole and left, volunteers Stephen Gillis and his 11-year-old daughter, Alexa Gillis, lay a nest protector on top.
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Volunteers hug when the mother returns to the water. Now, the weeks of waiting begin: The eggs will hatch in 60 or 90 days, depending on weather and other factors.Photos by Katherine KY Cheng/The Globe and Mail

The volunteer-run initiative is calling for High Park to rename “Cherry Blossom Hill” to “Hatchling Hill,” in an effort to reshape the public’s relationship with the land. The program has become so well-known among park-goers that the group has also started receiving calls from concerned citizens in nearby areas such as Etobicoke’s King’s Mill Park.

Ms. Crawley shared that one of her responsibilities as a member of the Turtle Clan is to monitor the health of turtle populations.

Through her Turtle Protectors work, Ms. Crawley aims to not only protect the vulnerable animals in high-traffic High Park, but also shift the fundamental relationship between humans and “animal relatives” toward greater reciprocity. She hopes that according more respect to the Indigenous approach to land stewardship will be a step in reconciliation.

“It’s hard for me to walk in both worlds,” Ms. Crawley says, referring to the Indigenous and settler world views. “But we all have a responsibility – a responsibility to take care of ourselves but also to care for the land, the waters and the beings.

“We’re all interconnected, we’re all interdependent upon each other, for many generations. We have to not only think of the future of humans but the future of all beings.”

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Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

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