The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two snapping turtles rescued after being shot in Virginia

This snapping turtle, found bloody and walking in the road in Frederick County, Va., was taken to a rehab center in Boyce, Va. Experts said it was hit by a vehicle and they also found a pellet behind its skull from an old gunshot wound. The incident has been reported to wildlife officials as it's a crime to shoot a snapping turtle in Virginia. (Blue Ridge Wildlife Center)
Placeholder while article actions load

Animal rescuers in Virginia received two reports in recent days of snapping turtles being shot in the head.

The Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Boyce, Va., outside of Winchester, got the first call early in the week about a turtle that was found in Frederick County. The 25-pounder had been hit by a car and was found bleeding while walking in the road. When the turtle was brought in for treatment, the veterinarian also found it had an older gunshot wound.

A few days later, the center got a call about another snapping turtle in Shenandoah County — a 15-pounder that had been shot in the head with what they speculated was an air gun pellet. They tagged it as No. 496 at the center.

“These turtles will not chase you down to attack you, and their size makes them hard to miss,” according to the center’s Facebook page. Jen Riley, the veterinarian who treated them, said she believes they were intentionally shot, which is a crime in Virginia.

Both cases are under investigation with the state’s Department of Wildlife Resources.

Usually at this time of year, Riley said the center gets turtles that have been hit by cars as they come out to look for mates or places to lay eggs. They also see plenty of snakes in the spring that have gotten caught in garden netting in a shed or garage.

But seeing turtles with gunshot wounds is rare, she said.

“They were both shot in the head, so that’s obviously intentional,” Riley said.

While it is not illegal to catch and eat snapping turtles in Virginia, there are strict regulations on doing so, and “shooting them and walking away is certainly not legal,” Riley said.

The veterinarian said the turtle that was hit by a car and found in Frederick County had to undergo a four-hour surgery with mounts and zip ties to stabilize its fractured shell. Riley said she found a pellet from an old gunshot wound behind the turtle’s skull when radiographs were done for the fractured shell. It wasn’t clear when the turtle had been shot.

That turtle, she said, is “pretty weak” from surgery but is expected to recover. For now, it’s being kept on “princess pillows” and out of the water so it doesn’t suffer further injury or infection.

The turtle found in Shenandoah County also had been shot just behind the skull. Riley said it had a gash through its head that showed it “must have pulled his head inside his shell rapidly.”

Riley said the entry hole of the pellet was clear and had gone “across the top of the turtle’s head and caused a wound over his left eye before it lodged in the folds of the skin on the turtle’s neck.”

“It implies that he already knew someone was threatening his life to pull his head in that quick,” Riley said. “It was very lucky timing on his part because it was less than 5 millimeters from destroying his left eye.” She said it is recovering and is in the water and eating.

Once the turtles are rehabilitated in the coming months, Riley said, they will be released to where they were found.

Riley said much like a criminal investigation for human crimes, evidence will be collected and other lab and forensic work will be done to figure out who shot the turtles. Because turtles are slow-moving animals and their home range is small, Riley said, “the chances are that the shooter or shooters were close to where the turtles were found.”

Riley said she has no reason to believe the same person shot each turtle.

She said investigators also look online because people sometimes “literally comment on Facebook and say, ‘Look, I shot this.’”