For ‘Turtle Joe,’ saving animals is no shell game

Joe Skaleski is a familiar face around Shawano. He is a lifelong resident who has passionately championed many causes, some receiving media attention.

A few examples: Joe was concerned about the practice of dumping snow that contained oil, antifreeze and other pollutants into our waterways. The issue was put on a referendum, and city voters agreed with Joe. So did the Department of Natural Resources, which recognized the city as a “model city” for discontinuing the practice.

Joe was also concerned about public access down to the riverbank by Sturgeon Park. He wanted to ensure it was safe for both young and old to view the annual sturgeon run, fish and walk. He worked with scouts and the park and recreation department to ensure the steps were stable and the walkway was protected from erosion.

Joe also cares deeply about Mother Nature and the preservation of wildlife. Years ago, when the economy was suffering, people “ate off the land” whenever they could. Turtles were a delicacy, and a kettle of soup was both tasty and economical. Joe recalls he and his partner, Bonnie Splitt, sometimes hosted turtle feeds.

“If there were eggs, I harvested them and buried them,” he said. “I wanted to add to the population, not take from it. Once the turtles hatched, I took them down to the river.”

Since that time, Joe has continued to gather turtle eggs and bury them.

“Sometimes predators will invade a nest and eat the eggs,” he said.

He estimates he has hatched thousands of eggs and has taken the baby turtles to their natural habitat.

“Most turtles lay their eggs in June and July,” Joe said. “That is why you see more turtles crossing the roads right now. They are moving about and getting ready to lay their eggs.”

Unfortunately, turtles don’t always make it across the busy roads. I read a social media post from a young mother. She had her 10-year-old son with her when they saw a turtle crossing the road. She pulled her truck to the side of the road. She was going to help the turtle, but a vehicle came along and swerved intentionally hitting the turtle.

She commented that her son was devastated and asked why anyone would do that. Joe commented, “I can’t understand what’s wrong with some people.”

Joe showed me a turtle he recently saved. The painted turtle had a cracked shell.

“It was bleeding. Part of the shell was nearly broken off; it was barely hanging on.” Joe said. “I cleaned the area and cut out a piece of nylon mesh. While Bonnie held the mesh in place, I lined up the shell to be sure it was in the right place. Then I spread some Loctite super glue over the mesh to secure it. I filled in a few spots with another adhesive. The turtle will be fine.”

What a wonderful act of human kindness. I was amazed at the masterful job Joe did. In a week or so, Joe will take the turtle to a private pond and release it.

He told me it was not the first shell he has repaired. People know about his concern for turtles, and they seek him out if they find an injured one.

Joe said there have been a few they were hurt too severely to be saved. He said if the turtles are brought to him during the time they have eggs, he removes them from the deceased turtle to give the little ones a chance at life.

Joe chuckled when he told me the following, “One day I got a call from a lady who said there was a snapping turtle on her lawn. I told her I was heading to a funeral, and I couldn’t get over there until noon. When I got home from the funeral, I received a second call — this time from a guy a few doors down. He said, ‘The turtle is at my place now.’

“I went over there, and I could see something white taped on the turtle’s back. I couldn’t imagine what it was.”

Joe handed me the piece of white paper that said, “Turtle Joe is picking me up at noon today. Call him and let him know where I am at.” Joe’s phone number was on the paper.

Joe invites families with young children to his house to witness the hatching of the eggs.

“Once the kids watch the birth of the turtles, they never forget it,” he said. “Kids like watching the turtles dig themselves out of the dirt. Hundreds of them poke their heads and then their whole bodies through the dirt and scurry about. It is quite a sight to see. Kids love it; adults do, too.”

Watch for an announcement about a television segment featuring Turtle Joe coming soon.

Question: How many species of turtles reside in Wisconsin, and what is the most abundant species?

Clothesline Conversation Answer: There are 11 species of turtles in Wisconsin. The most abundant species is the painted turtle.

Lorna Marquardt is a former Shawano mayor.