It all started in May 2006, when twelve-year-old Sydney Tanzola grew alarmed by the dead turtles she found on her street and other roadways around Washago, Ontario. Tanzola understood that turtles had become increasingly vulnerable to local extinction once people started fragmenting their habitat with roads. The youngster wrote a concerned letter to local naturalist Bob Bowles, who jumped at the opportunity to form Kids for Turtles (KfT), a group dedicated to promoting awareness of wildlife habitats through environmental education. Officially incorporated in 2007, KfT joined Ontario Nature as a member group the following year.
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KfT is not just for kids – it has more than 150 members, ranging in age from two to 72 – but its name recognizes that children are tomorrow’s conservation leaders. Turtles, like so many other species, must now rely on people to restore a formerly healthy population. KfT is intent on raising awareness about the importance of habitat conservation not only for turtles but for all wildlife.
To date, KfT has put up 57 turtle-crossing signs along roads and near wetlands in Simcoe County, and Bowles believes that vehicle-related turtle mortality has declined as a result. In 2007, KfT planted 6,000 tree seedlings as part of a habitat restoration project, in conjunction with Eco Medic Ecosystem Restoration Services and TwinLakes Conservation Club. KfT members are ubiquitous at trail cleanup events and butterfly workshops in the Orillia area.
KfT also promotes awareness about keeping turtles aspets, a long-term and expensive commitment that many owners come to regret. Because keeping any of Ontario’s eight turtle species as a pet is illegal, stores sell red-eared sliders, which are native to the United States. This species of turtle can grow to the size of a dinner plate and needs a 190-litre aquarium for the majority of its 30-year lifespan. And, as members operating KfT booths at fairs and outdoor events across the province will tell you, since red-ears are not native to Ontario, they should not be released into the wild if they outgrow their owners.
In 2009, KfT will expand its presence at festivals and education forums and join the campaign to clean up Lake Simcoe. KfT’s growing membership is also certain to retain its vital role as guardians of one of Ontario’s oldest reptile species.
In June, KfT hosted the first annual Mariposa Butterfly Festival in Orillia. The name of the event (mariposa is Spanish for “butterfly”) is a tribute to the Mexican wintering grounds of Ontario’s butterflies and a nod to the event’s sponsor, Mariposa Homes. Despite poor weather, the festival attracted more than 1,000 participants and a number of vendors selling butterfly-related crafts, clothing and books. KfT members staffed butterfly displays and led expeditions to local butterfly habitats in the Orillia area.
In preparation for the festival, KfT members and volunteers planted five butterfly gardens around Orillia. The gardens are stocked with the all-important milkweed plant on which monarch butterflies – a species of special concern nationally – lay their eggs. The ambitious goal of the festival and KfT’s butterfly initiatives is to restore the monarch population in urban areas by planting butterfly gardens in every backyard in Orillia.