- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

YACOLT, Wash. (AP) - On May 17, the final day of their five-month stint at Larch Corrections Center, nine Western pond turtles lurked out of sight near the bottom of their tanks, just as wary of people as they were on day one.

The turtles went to the Yacolt-area state prison in December, not for society’s protection, but for their own. There they completed a final phase of rehabilitation from a mysterious disease that caused a number of quarter-sized lesions to grow on their shells and those of other endangered Western pond turtles, The Columbian reported (https://bit.ly/1ONc0MA).

Last year, about 25 sick turtles were captured in the Columbia Gorge by biologists and brought to the Oregon Zoo in Portland for treatment. Later, nine of them were transferred to Larch. Two inmates, Terrell Hill, 34, and Joe Goff, 31, spent six hours per day ushering the animals through treatment - feeding them a diet of mealworms and mice, tending their wounds with iodine, and observing and documenting their recovery.

Western pond turtles once inhabited wetlands from Baja California to Puget Sound. Habitat loss, invasive species and other factors have reduced their distribution to a few pockets around western Washington.

Wildlife officials estimate that in the early 1990s, the number of Western pond turtles dipped to about 120 individuals in Washington. Statewide, there are now around 1,000 turtles living in the wild, but any new threat to the recovery process is troubling, and this new shell disease is no exception.

At Larch, the animals lived in a small, dank outbuilding. Pairs of turtles, all about the size of a soup bowl, shared large troughs like neighbors share a duplex, each with its own side of the tub outfitted with a basking platform and a heat lamp.

Although they’d been in the daily care of their two inmate handlers since they arrived, the turtles remained aloof. Only two of them showed enough personality to earn nicknames. One became known as “Stinky” for obvious reasons; the other was “Beast Mode” for its voracious eating habits.

Hill, a self-described “city boy” who was raised in Seattle before going to prison in 2004, said that as a youth he didn’t spend much time around animals, besides cats and dogs.

“I was nervous at the start” to work with turtles, he said. “I don’t think I touched one - except as a kid maybe one at the Woodland Zoo,” he said. “It’s been real nice, the experience. . This gives you some solace and reflection time and a little bit of empathy.”

Goff grew up in a military family and moved around a lot but always found solace in the wilderness before enlisting in the military. After getting the job, he learned the turtles once inhabited part of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, where he first fell in love with the outdoors.

“If I had to do a job in prison, I wanted to do the most beneficial one,” he said. “Taking care of turtles that are in prison to be rehabilitated, it feels like they’re the same as us.”

Of the 28 inmates who applied, Goff and Hill were the only ones to get the job. Each applicant had to write an essay and have a job interview with prison management.

“We try to make it as official as possible,” said Shawn Piliponis, classification councilor at Larch.

The turtles came to Larch as the latest manifestation of the Sustainability in Prisons Project - a partnership between the Washington Department of Corrections and The Evergreen State College in Olympia. The project aims to bring education and conservation work into state prisons. The prison also grows narrow-leaf plantain, which is eaten by endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies raised at the Oregon Zoo. Officials say the program benefits the conservation community by providing extra help and facilities and benefits inmates by fostering good behavior and teaching soft skills.

“The guys are better off than when they came in because they learn patience and cognitive thinking and leave more educated,” Jeremy Barclay, communications director of DOC, said of the turtle rehabilitation program.

On May 18, Hill and Goff were allowed to join Oregon Zoo and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials and release the animals into ponds in the Klickitat Wildlife Area near Goldendale. The day before, the two men said they were looking forward to caring for their next batch of turtles, but setting the first one free was bittersweet.

“We’re going to miss them, but they’re like us. They can’t stay here forever,” Hill said.


Information from: The Columbian, https://www.columbian.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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