Heartland animal family welcomes rescued turtles, chinchillas

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[November 05, 2016]  NORMAL - The science department at Heartland Community College recently rescued two alligator snapping turtles and two chinchillas. The turtles are part of Heartland’s involvement with Operation Endangered Species, an initiative that aims to save the alligator snapping turtle while engaging students. The chinchillas will join the Heartland “zoo,” which includes a variety of rescued animals that educate current HCC students and younger students within the community.

Operation Endangered Species

Spearheaded by Pontiac Township High School teacher and HCC College NOW instructor Paul Ritter, Operation Endangered Species works with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to reestablish the alligator snapping turtle to its historic Illinois home. Participating schools raise the turtles until they are ready and big enough to be released into the wild.

Heartland received the proper permits in summer 2016 and their turtles, Brian and Roger, arrived in June after being hatched at the St. Louis zoo.

HCC’s Associate Director of the Science Lab, Janet Beach-Davis, is thrilled to be part of the initiative. “These animals are predators and without predators, it’s hard to maintain an ecosystem,” she said. “We’re trying to restore the ecosystem and being part of something like that is fantastic.”

Beach-Davis adds the turtles grow slowly, so it’s likely Heartland will have them for a few years before they are released and given new ones.

The turtles have almost doubled in weight since arriving, and according to Beach-Davis, they eat a lot of fish.

Heartland Zoo

Brian and Roger aren’t the only new animals to Heartland. The science department also rescued two chinchillas, Marco and Polo. They are now officially part of the HCC zoo family, which includes several other rescue animals:

  • Mitch, a ball python
  • Chloe, a three-toed box turtle that was found wandering around Heartland’s campus
  • Tarantula Peter Parker
  • A hermit crab
  • Sammy the baby corn snake
  • Two parakeets named Sweetie and Melody

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Marco and Polo, as well as the rest of the brood, educate Heartland students and younger students within the community about animal behavior and basic taxonomy.

“They are truly classroom pets and not used for experiments,” explained Beach-Davis. “In addition to serving as companions, the animals are used for observation by Zoology and Biology students.”

Since the College had the animals, Beach-Davis thought, “Why not do outreach?”

With that idea, she invites students (typically elementary/middle school students) to the lab. She’s also willing to travel to schools with some of the zoo. During the visit, kids learn about the animals, what to feed them and basic taxonomy. They also get to handle the creatures, which, according to Beach-Davis, helps kids become familiar with animals and makes them less afraid.

“It’s incredibly fun for me to get younger students excited about science,” said Beach-Davis. “Around the fourth or fifth grade is when kids decide science is hard or not cool. This program keeps kids interested and gives them a nudge that science is fun.”

[Becky Gropp]

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