Human Elements: Saving a Washington native freshwater turtle

In Seattle, Woodland Park zookeeper Bill McDowell cares for the eggs of the endangered Western pond turtle before they are released into the wild.

When Bill McDowell, a zookeeper at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, looks at a turtle, he feels like he’s looking at deep time.

“When I go to a museum and I see a fully articulated dinosaur skeleton, and then the same day I can see a living turtle that predated that skeleton in terms of the evolutionary time,” he says, “that just blows me away.”

McDowell spends much of his time at the Zoo caring for the endangered Western pond turtle. Thirty years ago, the population had shrunk to only 150 turtles statewide.

“Nowadays when I get the opportunity to see a turtle in the wild,” McDowell says, “it's almost startling … When I was growing up, I could find turtles in the woods. It was pretty common.”


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McDowell carefully monitors turtle eggs collected by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife until they hatch at the Zoo. He then helps them grow strong enough to be released into the wild.

For McDowell, turtle releases can feel like a relief. “You get the feeling like, OK, I helped make a contribution to get these guys at least started, right? And give them a chance out there.”

CORRECTION: There are two native freshwater turtle species in Washington, the Western pond turtle and the Western painted turtle.

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