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Whitney Young students release endangered turtles in swamp

Whitney Young Pontiac High School students released 100 alligator snapping turtles swamp southern Illinois last week. | Phoprovided by Whitney

Whitney Young and Pontiac High School students released 100 alligator snapping turtles in a swamp in southern Illinois last week. | Photo provided by Whitney Young High School

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Updated: September 5, 2014 6:04AM

Little Ritter isn’t a cute or cuddly class pet.

He’s an alligator snapping turtle, but that doesn’t mean students at Whitney Young High School haven’t enjoyed taking care of him.

Now, they get to keep him a little longer.

While 100 of the turtles were being released last week into the wild, Little Ritter wasn’t. He couldn’t be released because he still must be tested for a fungus; if he has the fungus, he could not be set loose because it would pose a risk to other animals.

The turtles were put into a swamp in southern Illinois by students from Whitney Young’s Eco-Club and Pontiac High School, as part of an effort by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to repopulate the species.

Alligator snapping turtles are endangered in Illinois and Little Ritter is among the turtles that were raised by high school students.

“The idea is to get snaps back on the map and off the endangered species list,” said Todd Katz, science teacher at Whitney Young. “We’d like to bring attention to why they’re endangered and what can be done.”

Katz said the turtle population has been hit hard by habitat destruction and water pollution, as well as pesticides and over-hunting.

About 95 percent of turtles die before they are a year old, though after that their odds for survival improve. The students come in to help during the turtles’ most crucial years.

“I don’t think most people our age understand how important it is to keep alive endangered species,” Daveenah Guise, member of the Eco-Club said. “It’s game changing how we’re helping with breeding them and releasing them.”

The turtles, still tiny at this point, can weigh 100 pounds or more as adults. They were released with trackers on their shells to allow local scientists to check where they go and how they’re doing.

Little Ritter, now three years old, came to Eco-Club in December 2013. He will stay with the club and could be released next year.

Whitney is one of the few high schools in the state with an endangered species license — something that’s hard to come by.

Katz wants the students to understand the importance of preserving endangered species and wants to collaborate with other organizations to bring more animals into the school.

Tonyisha Harris, Eco-Club president, is glad so many turtles are being put back in their natural habitat and wants people to be more aware that their actions can harm animals.

“If you’re going to destroy a habitat, you need to work on re-creating one or just not mess with it at all,” she said. “There’s a symbiotic relationship where whatever happens in nature affects us and whatever we do, affects nature.”


Twitter: @mlespana

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