Turtles, that is, of every shape and size, along with a few assorted friends: bearded dragons, corn snakes, geckos and more. They stroll around in fenced areas and tubs, providing children and adults with the chance to see turtles up close, touch their shells, and learn more about what makes them tick.
What’s going on? This is not an invasion by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but it’s just as cool. It’s Columbus’s Turtle Lady and her ambassadors from the reptile and amphibian world.
Since 1998, the Turtle Lady (AKA Nancy Lockard) has done over 4,000 turtle programs in 150 cities throughout Ohio, West Virginia and Indiana. “If you multiply that by the number of people in each program,” she says, “it is overwhelming.”
Nancy does these programs for a number of reasons: out of her love for turtles and enjoyment at seeing kids fascinated by these unique creatures. There is also a strong educational component to her programs. “I entertain the kids with the animals,” she says, “and then preach about not getting animals before doing research on the animal.”
“When asked about the ‘best’ kind of turtle to get, my reply is always, ‘the best kind of turtle or reptile to get is the one you have researched the most’.”
This kind of research is imperative in the proper care of turtles, as needs vary greatly from species to species. As Nancy explains, “I do not recommend turtles or reptiles as pets for the average family unless they are passionate about learning everything about the animal. It is imperative before you buy one to find out how big he will get, his habitat requirements, and how long the commitment will be.”
Indeed, turtles are not the “easy” pet they may seem to be. Despite being much smaller and less active than a dog, for instance, a pet turtle may end up being more expensive in the long run. With a lifespan measured in decades and a need for specialized habitat and equipment in order to be healthy, a pet turtle can take a large bite out of the family budget.
Although turtles may be sold as a simple pet that can be raised in a small, barren environment and fed inexpensive turtle food, the reality is that turtles require a significant amount of space and a varied diet in order to thrive. Many turtle and tortoise species also need a daily dose of UVB light in order to process calcium and other minerals. Because the UVB present in sunlight is filtered out by glass, they cannot have their lighting needs met by being placed near a window; instead, they require a special (and expensive) type of light bulb that must be replaced frequently. Without enough UVB light, turtles can become very ill.
Nancy learned about the complexities of turtle care firsthand as a child. “When I was a little girl,” she says, “my parents, like many others in the ‘60s, bought me a little turtle at the drug store. It came with a plastic bowl and a pretend plastic palm tree. Even at the age of four or five, I knew that turtles lived in ponds and rivers. I quickly replaced the bowl with a container that would hold mud and moved the container into the sun each afternoon for the little guy to bask. Instead of the turtle food you could buy, I fed mine things he would find outdoors like fish and worms and plants.”
With her care, Nancy’s first turtle grew bigger and bigger, and soon neighborhood kids were bringing her more turtles. One turtle, who had been hit by a car, recovered from its injuries and survived well into Nancy’s adulthood. And so the “turtle girl” was born.
Throughout growing up, marrying, and having four kids, Nancy’s turtles stayed with her. She began sharing the turtles with her children’s classmates, neighbors and friends at church. In the 1990s, her family participated in a program at her church that hosted homeless families and provided dinner.
“I noticed that after the dinners,” she says, “the children in the program would get up from eating and watch TV until time for bed. That is when I got the idea that they would enjoy seeing some animals they had probably never seen before.”
Her hunch was correct; the children were fascinated by the turtles. “Many had never been to the zoo or even had a pet,” she says.
When a teacher also involved in the program asked Nancy to visit her classroom with the turtles, Nancy overcame her self-doubts and agreed. That 1998 classroom visit was a hit with the kids, and launched Nancy into what is now her full-time job: bringing turtles to the masses.
The money Nancy earns through her visits helps provide for her diverse crew of reptiles and amphibians. “Most times, however,” she says, “I am paid in money and in my heart. I know that I am making a difference in the lives of many children and animals.”
One final question for the Turtle Lady: what is the biggest misconception that people have about turtles? Most of them, she says, are not green!
If you are interested in learning more about turtles, including the pros, cons and requirements of keeping them as pets, here are some resources:
The Turtle Rescue League offers a page with a variety of links on turtle care, including a heartbreaking video on what happens to pet turtles that are not given proper care.
Austin’s Turtle Page provides care tips for turtles, as well as a turtle discussion forum.
This article by the Humane Society of the United States explores reasons why turtles may not make good pets. — Meredith Southard
An animal lover since she could shriek the word “doggie,” Meredith Southard has written for national and statewide publications on topics such as wildlife rehabilitation and rescue, conservation dogs, and the animals of Ohio’s wetlands. On warm spring nights she can be found traipsing around vernal pools with a flashlight, looking for salamanders and frogs.