Animal Tales: Old turtles find new home in Lewiston

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Beakster, a 45-year-old eastern box turtle, and five other members of his aging turtle family were taking in this summer by Drew Desjardins. Their previous caretaker had them for decades but recently had to move to a nursing home.

LEWISTON — As elderly turtles go, Beakster is pretty spry.

He eats. Swims. Sometimes he bullies the other turtles — which earned him his own aquarium. When a human appears, the 45-year-old reptile sticks his neck out of his shell for a chin rub, more cat-like than turtle. 

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“Most box turtles tend to hide,” Drew Desjardins said. “Beakster’s like, ‘Whatever, I’m here, just rub me.'”

Then there’s Mia, the mud turtle who is blind in one eye. Guster, a teenage Russian tortoise. Coyote, the three-toed box turtle who likes to hide. Jessie, the ornate wood turtle who begs for food. And Sweetums, a black marsh turtle whose species is so endangered worldwide that Desjardins thought he’d never see one.

Never, that is, until July, when he got a call from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife asking if he’d be willing to take in the six-turtle family, four of whom are elderly. Their longtime caretaker had moved to a Rockland nursing home and couldn’t bring her beloved Beakster, Mia, Guster, Coyote, Jessie and Sweetums with her. 

Desjardins, an exotic pet rescuer and rehabilitator, already had dozens of animals in his home, including about 20 turtles. He didn’t hesitate to add six more.

“I love turtles. Turtles are my favorite animals,” said Desjardins, wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed “Either you love turtles or you’re wrong.”

The six turtles range from golf ball-sized to softball-sized. Some are native to the region; others come from away.

The woman got them one at a time over the decades. She bought Mia, then a hatchling, when she was in college. She spotted Sweetums at a reptile expo 30 years ago and knew the species was on its way to becoming rare.

“She said it was an impulse buy,” Desjardins said.

She rescued Beakster, an eastern box turtle that is native to Maine but uncommon, after he was hit by a car. He’s always been spunky.

“She called him her spirit animal,” Desjardins said.

Guster is the youngest of the group — somewhere in his mid to late teens.  Jessie is 25. The others range from about 40 to 54 years old, elderly for turtles that may live, on average, 40 to 60 years. 

Although their last caretaker didn’t need a permit for them — she got them before permits were required — any new caretaker would. Inland Fisheries and Wildlife originally asked Desjardins to care for the turtles temporarily, just until they could be handed off to permanent homes. When he got them and realized how old they were, he asked to keep them for good. 

“I said, ‘Listen, we really need to home them here,'” Desjardins said. “They’re old. I mean, they might still live another 10 years. They might live another 20 … at least I know I can handle them for the rest of their lives.”

Although most of the turtles are old, they’re healthy and friendly. They were obviously well cared for and much loved.

Their last caretaker had wanted them to go to Avian Haven in rural Freedom, but that particular rescue is geared toward birds. She was initially disappointed to learn they’d been moved to Lewiston, but that disappointment didn’t last long.

“I sent her pictures of them out on the lawn and stuff. I put some berries out for them. She was happy that they’re doing good,” Desjardins said. “I said we’ll use them in education so children can learn about them, and adults. She was very happy to hear that.”

Desjardins runs Mr. Drew and His Animals Too, an educational outreach and exotic animal rescue that teaches people about wildlife conservation and encourages animal appreciation. He expects all six of the turtles will be good turtle ambassadors. 

Maybe especially Beakster.    

“He’s got a good personality,” Desjardins said.

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Contact Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or ltice@sunjournal.com.

Drew Desjardins hold Sweetums, an endangered black marsh turtle, in his home in Lewiston. 

Coyote, a 40-year-old three-toed box turtle, is now part of the turtle community with Mr. Drew and His Animals Too in Lewiston.

Pablo, a painted turtle, swims in a tank in Drew Desjardins’ home. While Pablo is not part of the new collection, he is sharing his tank with new roommate Mia, a 54-year-old blind-in-one-eye mud turtle.

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