- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2005

Rescued recover

in his back yard

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Some people take time to smell the roses. Garland Butler, 58, brakes for turtles.

Especially if someone else didn’t.

It’s a habit he got into years ago as a sheriff’s deputy serving papers in the Churchland area. He saw development erasing nature’s habitats, and too many turtles inching along asphalt, oblivious to danger.

“I’d see turtles crossing the road, and I’d just put them on the other side,” he said. “And then one day, I kept one.”

He didn’t set out to be a rescuer of the shelled creatures. But he would see them topsy-turvy, their shells cracked or broken where they had been flipped by the wheel of a car.

He started reading about the armored reptiles, and the more he learned, the more he cared about what happened to them.

People started to bring him injured turtles, too. Sometimes the turtles came to him for rehabilitation after people took them to a veterinarian who knew of his interest. Before he knew it, Mr. Butler was operating a safe haven for turtles in trouble.

When Mr. Butler’s family bought a new house in Merrifields, it was the turtles that moved first. “I had to get their home ready before I could move myself,” he said.

He penned an area 50 feet by 10 feet in the back yard under the shade of a couple pine trees, which are surrounded by azaleas and other shrubs. Blackberries and grapes grow in the turtles’ habitat.

There’s a nice carpet of pine straw, which the turtles dig under to hibernate during the winter. “It’s all natural,” he said.

Except for the turtle-sized wooden shelters he has built to shade them on hot days.

On a recent morning, they came out of their hiding places, seeming to respond to the voice of their caretaker. Mr. Butler opened a can of dog food.

The turtles will eat just about anything, from insects and slugs to fruits and vegetables, he said. But he read somewhere that they could eat dog food, and he figured that was rich in vitamins.

“Come on,” he called out, as he spooned generous portions on several wood blocks around the fenced area. A small group of turtles circled one of the heaps, sharing the feast.

“Now this guy here is the second turtle I’ve ever had,” he said. “I found him upside down on the highway. … His shell was broken, and he was bleeding.”

He lifted a screened box to show newborns the size of a quarter. Nearby he raised a wooden shelter under which turtles had been mating.

Mr. Butler seems to know all the turtles, including how long he has had them and how they came under his care. “They have their own personalities. Some of them are really warm to you,” he said. “And some clam up and don’t want you messing with them.”

The only one he ever named was a box turtle he calls Lazarus because he seemed to rise from the dead.

“Someone brought him to me, and he was pretty well busted up, but he was still living,” he said.

But by winter, the turtle had not hibernated and didn’t move, so Mr. Butler thought he was dead. Still he gave the reptile the benefit of the doubt, burying him just 6 inches in the ground.

That summer a neighbor told him there was a turtle in the road. “I recognized him because of his injuries,” he said.

Mr. Butler has had Lazarus for about 10 years.

He has had some of his painted turtles just as long.

They splash away in a pond on Mr. Butler’s enclosed porch and bask in their own private sun, a 100-watt light bulb radiating off an aluminum shade suspended over the water.

He feeds the painted turtles reptile sticks, and they eat out of his hand. But they’ll also bite the hand feeding them.

Mr. Butler has been bitten a few times, but he doesn’t give the bigger species a chance. “Somebody called and said, ‘I’ve got this thing in my yard. It acts like it wants to bite,’” he said. “He was trying to describe it, and I knew what it was.”

He got some heavy-duty leather gloves and went to the rescue, giving the snapping turtle a lift to a swampy area.

Now retired, Mr. Butler spent 30 years between the police department and the sheriff’s office. He’d like to start doing more volunteer work for the nearby Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve.

Mr. Butler is still working part time, painting houses. But like his backyard reptilian guests, he’s living life in the slow lane now. He spends time tinkering with his landscaping projects or whittling patterned walking sticks out of tree limbs.

And taking care of the turtles.

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