Classroom conservation efforts taken home amid COVID-19 shutdown

BOSTON — As schools started shutting down last month, many had to consider how to deal with the live animals they had in their classrooms.

Some schools were hosting more than 100 endangered turtles, which were being raised until they were big enough to be released into nature later in the spring.

This species of turtle is called the Red-bellied Cooter. They are on both the state and federal endangered species lists.

At one point, it was estimated that only about 200 cooters remained in Massachusetts, mostly in ponds in the Plymouth area.

If the cooters are raised until they’re physically larger, they are less likely to be harmed by predators.

Each year, more than a dozen schools across the state raise the turtles in their classrooms for a real-time lesson in biology. The coronavirus, and the subsequent closures, upended the plans to release those turtles sometime in May. They needed some new homes fast.

“It was clear that some of the those schools wouldn’t be able to keep caring for those turtles as they had been,” said Mike Jones, who oversees the program for the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “Luckily we had one partner in Bristol County, the Bristol County Agricultural High School, that was willing to house an undetermined number.”

“We said sure, give us 48 hours,” said Brian Basterache, the head of the school’s Natural Resource Management Department.

Bastarache is kind of into turtles so he ended up taking in 36 extra cooters in addition to the ones he got at the beginning of the school year. He also has dozens of turtles for other projects, including some from as far away as New Jersey.

Bastarache and fellow instructor Kourtnie Boulet are considered essential employees so they’re able to get into the school to feed the turtles and clean out the tanks.

Both are still teaching remotely as well and hope their students are learning something else this year.

“We took these animals in. It’s our responsibility to make sure they’re OK until they can be released. That’s probably the most important lesson they can learn from this, which is also transferable to any path they follow in life,” explained Bastarache.

Jones believes this program is a conservation success and that it’s not just the turtles who benefit.

“It’s a striking creature to see," he said. "I think that overall, the Commonwealth is richer that this species is still in the wild.”

Despite this change in how the turtles are being raised, everyone is still optimistic the cooters will big and healthy, and ready to be released in May as originally planned.

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