The story of our box turtle began about 6 months ago, when while hiking along our neighborhood creek, we encountered an off-leash dog carrying something that looked to be large in his mouth.  The dog was having some fun tossing this object around, but we soon realized to our horror that it wasn’t a rock or small piece of wood but instead an eastern box turtle.

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We sprang into action, chasing the errant dog and were eventually able to pry the turtle free from his jaws. At this point we had hopes the turtle might be completely fine, if not a bit shaken, but soon we saw the blood.  We quickly took the turtle to the Wildlife Center of Virginia, a place of last resort for many animal emergencies of this kind. We are very grateful the Center exists, and they gladly took in our turtle (as they do almost any injured animal), registered our name and other details about the location and circumstances where the turtle was injured.

The Wildlife Center of Virginia is an unusual place, and we are lucky to have it in our region. It is a veterinarian teaching facility for wildlife.  It is a hospital, but also a hub for education about wildlife.

We did not hear much about the turtle for a while, but after some months of winter recovery, we received the long-awaited call that the turtle was fine and ready for release back into the wild. The Center’s policy is to try whenever possible to release animals wherever they were found. In our case, this was a few hundred feet away from the banks of Charlottesville’s Meadow Creek.

The Center’s work is largely thankless, and its larger biological impact debatable. Nevertheless, the numbers are impressive, as is the longevity and staying power of a facility that is perpetually underfunded. First opening its doors in November, 1982, the Center recently celebrated its 30 year anniversary, and in that time they have attended to some 30,000 wild animal patients!

This winter, the center was home to 22 recovering box turtles, including our own.

We looked forward to returning our turtle back to her home territory. For us it became a family event, and my two daughters and I solemnly re-launched our turtle on a sunny Saturday. We took pictures and wished our turtle well. We hope we might see our turtle from time to time (we haven’t yet), but frankly it might be even more reassuring not to see her, and just to know that she is living contentedly beyond the potential clutches of other off-leash dogs.

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We owe it to our animal co-inhabitants to support places like the Wildlife Center, and  to rescue and care for them when much of the danger and harm they face is a direct a result of human activities and development. It is the least we can do, and places like the Wildlife Center symbolize our ethical commitment to the “others” with whom we share our communities.

Cities are full of places where the interests of humans and non-humans conflict. It is often between buildings, roads and cars.  The results are not always pretty for the animals and plants—bird strikes on building windows, road kill and auto collision injuries, destruction of trees and other habitat elements to make room for urbanization, habitation, commerce. We generally take away more than we give, and while urban nature is remarkably resilient, places like the Wildlife Center offer at least some measure of compensation.

I’ve also come to see the release of our turtle as a tangible act of commitment to the future; something akin to like planting a tree.  It is a way of imbuing these spaces of nature with special meaning—that stream and forest are the home of our turtle, and we may be (even) more inclined to rise to its defense if necessary. We may be more inclined to spend part of our weekend cleaning up this stream and guarding over its abundance and diversity.

It seems a small thing, to see and acknowledge an injured animal, and to take personal responsibility for its careful rescue and survival. But it is in these moments when we are able to exercise our empathic impulses, when we are at our best, it seems. Sometimes it is frustratingly difficult to see how to make a difference in the world, and these small episodes of crisis and connection give us the chance to make a difference in very tangible and meaningful ways.  In these small moments of care, when we identify with the myriad other lives and life forms around us, we say much about what is important to us, and we send important signal to others as well (our children, neighbors) about the inherent worth of non-human lives.

Post by Timothy Beatley

Timothy Beatley, PhD, is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities & Chair of the Department of Urban & Environmental Planning at the UVa School of Architecture.