Reversing the decline of the western painted turtle requires year-round care of turtle eggs and hatchlings by WPC staff at the Greater Vancouver Zoo. In a three-stage approach, WPC collects eggs from wild nests that are in danger, incubates the eggs, and overwinters the hatchlings until they are large enough for release in following years. The overwintering to allow the turtles to grow is called headstarting, giving them a better chance to survive once they are returned to the wild.

At WPC’s western painted turtle headstarting program in British Columbia, we get to spend plenty of time getting to know our turtles and the many weird moments that come with them. They might be small, but they sure know how to entertain.

Our day starts off with feeding the turtles. The turtles never fail to greet us excitedly when we come up to their tub with food in our hands. We choose to see it as love, even though they are greeting the food in our hands rather than us. It is always a chaotic moment, with turtles trying to swim over each other and smacking their friends in a moment of pure excitement.

An attempted capture of the chaos that ensues when we walk up to the turtle tubs with food.

Naturally, the turtles’ least favorite foods are the ones that come packed with the most nutrients. Like a small child served with a plate full of steamed broccoli, the turtles often scoff at us when we feed them our house-made turtle loaf instead of shrimp or krill. When we feed out their favorite foods, it can get pretty intense. The turtles are most feisty when served mealworms. They often fight over one, what must be the juiciest, mealworm. It can appear like an aggressive tug of war, or a dramatic lady and the tramp.

The moments of sharing and/or fighting over the best mealworm.

The turtles aren’t just chaotic during feeding hours. When they think nobody is watching, the show continues. Here are a few highlights.

This turtle decided the best way to ride the waves was on another turtle’s back.

This turtle found a perfect sized hole in the island to spy on everyone else (including us.)

Caught red-handed: this turtle made an attempt at prison break by climbing up the drain of the tank. After finding little success, the turtle decided to play it cool by basking on the drain, as if that was the plan all along.

Some turtles hate vacuuming their house as much as we do. They often rebel by attacking our siphon. This turtle decided the solution was to stick its head in the siphon after biting the siphon didn’t get the desired result.

We are enjoying their turtle antics while they are in our care. And though we will miss them, we look forward to releasing them to the wild when they are big enough, to increase the declining populations of this native freshwater turtle.