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Jean Beasley is on a mission to save sea turtles at Topsail Island

By Jason Frye
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    Information on the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center:

  • Beasley’s mission

    Jean Beasley’s love affair with sea turtles started in 1970. “That’s when I saw a mama sea turtle lay her eggs on the beach. It was all over after that.”

    As a vacationer on Topsail Island at the time, she and her family began making informal turtle patrols during every visit. They’d erase tracks to hide nests and keep a tally of what they’d found. By 1982, Beasley and her husband had moved to Topsail. That’s when she started her turtle patrols in earnest.

    “I’d built a little reputation by then, I guess,” she said. “I started writing a letter to (N.C.) Wildlife Resources every year, telling them the number of turtle nests I found. Word got around, and folks here started telling me about nests and turtles, and I helped out by keeping track of it all.”

    When her daughter Karen was diagnosed with leukemia, the two spent a lot of time together. Karen pushed her mom to organize their sea turtle protection efforts, writing the organization’s initial mission statement, putting together the beach monitoring program and recruiting volunteers. As her disease progressed, Karen told her mother that she was leaving her her insurance money so Jean could “do something good for sea turtles.”

    It took some time after Jean’s daughter’s passing for the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center to come into being. In the interim, Jean and her volunteers monitored countless nests … until one day, an injured turtle came along. Someone needed to care for it, so Beasley took it to the veterinary school at N.C. State.

    “I dropped that turtle off and said I was leaving. I asked if I could come back in a day or two and check on it. The vet stared at me. He told me they couldn’t keep it; I’d have to take it home with me. So I did. They worked on the turtle, I took it home, and we put it in a volunteer’s backyard to recuperate. We didn’t know what we were doing, but I guess we did OK,” she said. “That winter, it got cold, and we didn’t know how to take care of it, so we drove it to Florida to warmer waters and released it.”

    Her life as a turtle rehabilitator had begun.

    Dr. Greg Lewbart, a doctor of veterinary medicine at N.C. State, recalls Beasley fondly. “We’d have these cards that went with our patients. They had the contact and responsible party listed. I kept seeing sea turtles come in, and the cards all said ‘Beasley.’ I wondered who this person was. They were bringing in these injured animals, paying for their care and leaving with them. When I finally met Jean in late 1993, I knew I’d met someone special.”

When the crowd on the beach cheers, it’s unclear whether they’re cheering for the turtle or the woman. The turtle, named Cape Fear, is the latest patient to be released from the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center – lovingly known as “the Turtle Hospital” – on Topsail Island. Jean Beasley is the reason he’s alive today.

The Turtle Hospital is about to close its doors, temporarily, to move into a new facility that dwarfs the space they’ve called home for the last 16 years. The original 900-square-foot, garage-style facility is crowded with sea turtles in tanks and tubs. The floor is a latticework of pipes. The backyard is taken up by a tent filled with more turtles in more tanks. Between the army of volunteers and the turtles, the hospital has outgrown its space. By late September, it will be set up in a brand new facility a few miles away with more than 13,000 square feet of space devoted to the rehabilitation and care of injured sea turtles.

The $1.5 million facility will feature larger tanks for the patients; an expanded water system; a 3,600-square-foot room for recovery; a hydrotherapy pool; a room specifically designed to help isolate cold, stunned and hypothermic turtles; a lab capable of blood analysis and other simple tests; and a surgery suite where minor procedures can be undertaken. All this, Beasley said, allows them to provide the turtles with better care than they’ve been able to in the past.

“So far in 2013, we’ve served 63 sea turtles, the greatest number in our history,” she said. “We had turtles everywhere we could fit them, but at the new hospital, space isn’t an issue, so we’ll have plenty of room for patients. We even designed the hallways to be extra wide in case we ever need a spot for more tanks.”

With the added room for patients comes added room for visitors, something the turtle hospital has plenty of; in the summer, they’ll see 750 visitors or more on a busy day.

“I’ve seen visitors stand in line for two or three hours to get to see the turtles. And they always say it was worth it,” said Peggy LeClair, a volunteer with the hospital for the last 12 years. She transplanted here from Vermont, retired and found an outlet for her love of animals as a Turtle Hospital volunteer.

Role of volunteers

LeClair is one of many volunteers at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue. By Beasley’s estimates, more than 1,000 volunteers have helped over the years, allowing all the funding to go to their No. 1 mission: helping the turtles – and allowing more lives to be touched by these creatures.

“We rely on the generosity of the public. We don’t charge admission, we just ask for donations, sell T-shirts and a few souvenirs, and let people fall in love with the turtles on their own,” Beasley said. “They do. That’s why we want to give them a great experience when they come to visit us.”

As focused as Beasley and her volunteers are on giving the public a positive experience and educating them about sea turtles, they’ve kept their focus singular: Give each patient the best care possible. To that end, they got creative when designing the new facility, especially in what Beasley calls the “cold room,” where turtles who are cold-stunned go to be warmed up in a safe, controlled manner.

“Since turtles are cold-blooded, they rely on water temperature to regulate their body temperature. When they get cold, they need warmer water. It’s that simple,” she said. The cold room allows hospital volunteers to monitor the water temperature, raising it periodically by pumping in warmer water. It’s a slow process that requires the ability to control incoming water temperature and raise it to proper levels at the right time. Thanks to monitoring equipment in the cold room, they can do this with ease.

Beasley said the cold room is an unfortunate necessity: “With climate change comes great swings in temperature. This past January, an unseasonable cold snap brought 40 cold-stunned turtles into our facility. It was a struggle to give all of them the care they needed, but we did it.”

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