Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital Page 2

Mission statement

It unclear to Beasley what became of the turtles that she used to turn over to state and local wildlife officers. And, frankly, she preferred not to think about that, because she knew that information was not likely to make her very happy.

So the first time she and her volunteers took it upon themselves to care for a rehab turtle, they kept it in a back yard and someone drove it to Florida for the winter. Sea World was kind enough to bring it back to them in the spring.

The year was 1995, and Beasley began scouting around for something with heat and insulation, something that eliminated any future driving to Florida. Eventually she persuaded the Town of Topsail Beach to let her use a sound-side municipal lot, and with the insurance money from her daughter's death she put a small pre-fab structure on the lot.

Her daughter Karen, for whom the hospital is named, conducted Turtle Talks on the beach that continue to this day, Wednesdays at 3:45 p.m. during the summer months. Karen was 29 years old when she died of leukemia.

Beasley has well-established ties with NC State's College of Veterinary Medicine and now the turtles are driven to Raleigh to see their primary health care provider. The volunteer who takes a newly-admitted patient to Raleigh has to bring it back the same day. There are no beds for sea turtle anywhere else.

The hospital also has to find a way to pay the veterinarian for services rendered. That, she says, is the largest line item in the budget.

But over in the asset column, anywhere from 35 to 50 unpaid volunteers enthusiastically care for an ever-increasing number of hospitalized turtles, a number that could go as high as 30. They are not in the business of warehousing injured turtles and, if chances of recovery are slim to none, tough decisions have to be made.

Meanwhile somewhere in the range of 100 volunteers are out patrolling the beach for signs of turtle tracks leading to nests. When a nest is found, it is roped off and closely monitored, even a round-the-clock guard when hatching time is at hand. Sea turtle eggs generally hatch in about 60 days, so with constant monitoring the volunteers can nail down that hatch date with some degree of accuracy.

The sad fact is that, even with all these efforts, only one in an estimated five to ten thousand hatchlings survive. That's not great odds, and the turtles don't seem to be laying enough eggs to keep their numbers from declining. "Going back to the mid-80s when my daughter began the beach project, we had anywhere from 125 to 185 nests," Beasley said. "We haven't reached 100 in six or seven years."

All sea turtle species are either endangered or threatened, and are listed in the Endangered Species Act. Researchers track them worldwide—the occasional patient shows up at the hospital with an electronic tracking implant—and most sea turtle species live about 100 years.

There are seven species worldwide, five of which migrate along the east coast and three of which are hospitalized at Topsail Beach regularly. The loggerhead is the most common seen in North Carolina, followed by green sea turtles and then Kemp's Ridley.

Lights out, hands off

Another single-minded effort spearheaded by the turtle volunteers has been to fill the vacation rental houses and condos with printed materials containing strongly-worded warnings to beach visitors. Now those teenagers who leave on all the lights in the house can do more significant damage than merely running the power bill through the roof.

The turtle advocates have furnished local realtors with signs to be posted on kitchen counters and refrigerator doors, advising vacationers to turn off outside lights and refrain from using flashlights on the beach. They even go so far as to persuade the power company to turn off street lights where nests have been found.

Turtles are disoriented by light. Think what their world would be like if people weren't in it. "They go to the nearest light; that's their instinct," Beasley said. "And if we weren't here it would be the horizon."

Visitors also are warned not try to stop a turtle or get in its way. "It's illegal," she said. "It's a violation of federal law."

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