Our own Animal Kingdom...
I like to use the term, "I wear a lot of hats." I have my mom hat, my wife hat, my travel agent hat, my designer hat, but one of the biggest hats I wear, is my animal hat. I know I've shared my passion for art, food, and Disney, but in this post, I'd like to have a little heart to heart and share the other side of my life. I have had a connection with animals my entire life. Thankfully, I have been able to turn it into not only my career, but my way of life, and something I get to share with my girls. And to top all of it off my husband Chris and I also get to share our passion in conservation and general love of animals together. We joke around about how we are birds of a feather (or tortoises of a shell? I guess that doesn't work here.) Once we put our minds to something we are locomotives, and can not be stopped until we are either satisfied with the results or it kills us. One way or another, it's getting done, and we support each other fully on that.
I run a volunteer project called the Terrapin Conservation Initiative in coastal NJ, where we protect the native Northern diamondback terrapin. They are a newly protected species as of 2016, and we are working with state fish and wildlife and U.S. fish and wildlife to secure a better understanding and a better future for this unique species by conducting research in several different locations. We work tirelessly every May, June and July, every single day to work with this beautiful and unique species. Gravid females emerge from the water sometimes in droves looking for the best possible place to lay their eggs. They scrape their chins on the surface of the ground and throw sand around with the front legs to test the consistency before breaking ground. Once they find a suitable area, they take anywhere from 20 minutes to a half hour to dig the flask shaped hole and disperse anywhere from 4-16 eggs. Once they cover the nest, they return to the water and leave the eggs to incubate all summer long. Hatchlings will emerge (if the
nests are not predated) sometime in late August to October, which of course depends on the fall we are having. If we have a chilly fall, most hatchlings will "winter over" in the nest and emerge in the spring. Amazing right?? Where we work, the terrapins have about 2 ft on either side of the road to scope out their nesting site before hitting the pavement of a 50 mph road. They zig zag across the busy street, gravel parking lots or bridges where they become trapped or killed on the road. As far as nests go, the "safest" areas from road mortality for the adult females, tends to be the most dangerous for the eggs and hatchlings. The raccoons, feral cats, skunk, crows, and shore birds are waiting to feast on thousands of eggs every season. The crows actually know when the turtle is in between laying eggs and covering the nest, waiting at the edge of the hole to steal anything they can before the turtle seals the nest shut. In the last three years, we have released over 2500 hatchlings safely back to the marsh. We have PIT tagged 1500 adult females, and answered an unfathomable amount of terrapin rescue calls to help direct the public on what to do with a lost, or injured terrapin. Part of our mission is to teach the locals and general public how to safely coexist with these nesting females and emerging hatchlings to prevent tragedy or loss within the local populations.
Chris works for a really cool company called Herpetological Associates, as a field biologist and assistant herpetologist. Herpetological Associates is a group of renowned herpetologists and biologists that have dedicated themselves to researching the tristate area's reptiles and amphibians since 1977. Part of his job is tracking endangered species of snakes using radio telemetry, monitoring native wildlife, and keeping a LOT of data. He has worked with everything from common fowler's toads, to pine snakes, rattlesnakes, salamanders, and of course turtles. He also volunteers for the state's Venomous Snake Response Team and answers calls to help the public safely coexist with the native snakes of NJ by removing them from potentially dangerous situations all while educating concerned residents that these snakes are beneficial and actually need our help to remain in existence.
My husband and I also own and operate a turtle and tortoise sanctuary and breeding facility, Garden State Tortoise, where we house over 350 turtles and tortoises from all over the globe. Some of our animals are in Species Survival Plans (organized breeding program of assurance colonies to ensure the preservation of an endangered or critically endangered species), like our group of African pancake tortoises that are actually in the studbook run by Disney's Animal Kingdom. We have been involved in genetic research on the endangered western Hermann's tortoise endemic to Italy, France, and Spain, housing over 50 adults from 8 different locales. We are the only private facility in the Coahuilan box turtle Species Survival Plan, hatching 28 offspring in 2020 alone.
Another big part of what we do, is we provide a home to those who have none. We answer the call to local zoos, shelters, and the public, on animals that people can no longer care for or wandering animals that are not where they should be. We work closely with both state and U.S. fish and wildlife in handling any confiscation animals they need us to house and maintain that may have been poached, smuggled or illegally obtained in some way. Between 2017-2021, we have taken in over 200 box turtles representing all of the naturally occurring subspecies in the United States.
My husband has quite the knack for enclosure design. Let me just say, I come from an art history degree with years of professional horticulture design, but I wont say a word when he is building and designing enclosures. He prides himself on recreating nature, especially making the landscape authentic to each species' native habitat. Our ponds are all biologically sound which keeps our animals happy and healthy, sparking their instinctive behaviors such as foraging for food, hiding from the elements, and breeding etc.
There is so much that I could say, but I can save it for another post. Garden State Tortoise truly is a gem and has a special place in our hearts and souls. I am beyond thankful that my girls get to grow up alongside animals and nature in the way that they do. It's not just an LLC, a name on a business card, or an occupation. It's our way of life here, a culture that we have created and will give all our blood, sweat and tears to keep it alive and thriving the way that it does.
How did we get here?
Well, I don't think I've actually tried to right it all down chronologically, and if I did attempt to, it would probably be pretty jumbled. We work really hard. Every day, all day, until the work is done ( it never is). I went to school for Visual Arts with a focus in Art History (makes sense?). I worked as a freelance photographer in college ( I feel like everyone did). I ended up getting a job as a floral designer for a few years and adored it. Then I broke ground into the horticulture and landscape design elements and even went back to school for a bit to test the waters with plant biology, and again loved it. Seeing a rhythm? Like I said, a lot of different hats. All the while, we had started our facility working with turtles and tortoises in our little farm house.
My Husband decided to step away from his music career and fully focus on GST. He has been working with reptiles his entire life, and felt the opportunity arose to make this his career and sole focus. He taught me more than I could ever read in a book or learn in a class just with what we had in our backyard and I owe him for that. He is a published author, consultant, donor, public speaker, and has lead the way with a few different species in proper breeding and husbandry in the chelonian (turtle and tortoise) community, all without a college degree. UNREAL. He's without a doubt a hero to me.
I ended up getting a position as a zookeeper and animal trainer for a few years, working with a wide variety of species like macaws and parrots, a giant anteater, raptors, lizards, snakes, bear cubs, pigs, goats, and even giraffes. One of my favorite things to do, and this is not a joke, but I love cleaning animal enclosures. Yes, raking and shoveling, throwing hay down, etc. Bring on the hard labor! I think because it combines my two loves for landscaping and animal care? Who knows. Don't judge me.
By this time, we were married and starting our family, so we moved a little further south to a larger property where we knew for sure that we could continue to care for all of our animals and even grow a little bit. I ended up leaving the zoo to be a full time mom and partner to Chris in running GST. Which brings us to where we are now, two spicy little girls, a home we own and love, 350 animals to feed and care for, a growing conservation project, and I get to plan Disney Vacations for a living.
Well, we are always looking to the horizon here, moving forward while learning from what's behind us, and appreciating what we have. I plan to share a lot more animal adventures here, showing our day to day lives with animal care, field work, and our family dynamic. We were recently contacted by Garden State Koi in association with Aquascape. They have offered to donate a custom built Aquascape Ecosystem to our facility for our rescue Diamondback Terrapins. This pond will be the first of its kind that they have ever built. It will be tidal, and mimic the marsh as close as possible to provide the most naturalistic habitat for unwanted or non-releasable animals. It is a DREAM to be able to say "yes, that animal will live out the rest of its life the best way it can, here, with us." Because the terrapins are from a tidal and brackish environment, it is so unique that they are able to re-create this right here at our sanctuary. I will absolutely make another post with the details and finished product once it is complete.
Now that travel is back up and running, we hope to have MANY more adventures underway!
Until then, thank you for reading, watching, and liking our posts! If you'd like to see more, check out GST's youtube channel here , or our instagram accounts @terrapinconservationinitiative , @garden_state_tortoise , or @the.travelorian