A Haven for Turtles, in a Scarborough Apartment
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A Haven for Turtles, in a Scarborough Apartment

Marc Ouellette's two-bedroom apartment is also the headquarters of his reptile rescue.

A few of Little RES Q’s turtles.

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed when entering Marc Ouellette’s Scarborough apartment for the first time. In addition to being home to Ouellette and his collection of pets—which includes a cat, a dog, a dozen turtles, a tortoise, a snake, and a handful of lizards—it’s also the nerve centre for Little RES Q, Ouellette’s turtle-rescue organization.

The second bedroom is filled with tanks and tubs, each stocked with red-eared sliders, the most common type of turtle sold in pet stores, divided by sex and size. Ouellette even has isolation tanks for sick and injured animals. Right now, there are roughly 100 rescue turtles in the apartment.

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Ouellette has loved turtles all his life. (His first one, Apollo, is about to turn 24, which is middle aged by turtle standards.) He started Little RES Q in 2008 after realizing there was a need. He says that red-eared sliders are abandoned and released into the wild with alarming frequency.

“People buy this little toonie-sized turtle at the pet store for $20, and it’s like, ‘OK, I can put that in a little tank,’ but within three years, the females get up to two or three pounds, the boys weigh about a pound” he says. “Then you need a bigger tank and filtration system and that costs so many hundreds of dollars…It gets too expensive, and then they don’t realize turtles can live up to 50 years.”

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The problem with releasing pet sliders into the wild isn’t that they can’t fend for themselves. It’s that Ontario’s native turtles can’t fend them off. Sliders have an indigenous territory that stretches from Ohio to Mexico, but they’re hardy and reproduce quickly. This makes them a pet turtle of choice, but it has also earned them a place on the World Conservation Union’s list of the world’s 100 most invasive species.

“They’re generalists, so they can adapt to our climate,” Ouellette says. “Then, they’ll just muscle out our native turtles like the painted turtle…They turn feral and aggressive very quickly.”

Ouellette says that he doesn’t find new homes for his foster turtles very frequently, partially because there are already so many sliders in pet stores, and partially because he carefully screens potential adoptees.

“There have been people who want to take a turtle home and say, ‘Well, I’ll put it in a bucket and take care of it later,’” he says. “Well, no. You need to have a set up before you take it in. We don’t want to see that turtle coming back.”

Marc Ouellette, with a turtle.

Ouellette has recently started taking in other abandoned reptiles.

“Because we’ve turned into one of the more reputable rescues for reptiles in Toronto, we get recommended a lot,” he says. “So when people call a pet store or whatever and say, ‘I have a snake I need to get rid of,’ we’re usually the first one people call.”

Ouellette and his Little RES Q colleagues are trying to make sure that fewer turtles end up homeless by working on outreach and education. They’ve started publishing pamphlets in multiple languages, and are a regular feature at reptile shows.

“As much as I love what I do, if there came a time when I didn’t have to do this, that would be great,” he says. “It’s just a matter of education. People need to know what these turtles are like at their adult size. They need to know what a turtle needs and how big they get.”

He acknowledges that people probably won’t stop surrendering turtles in the near future, so he’s working on expanding his operation. He recently applied for registered charity status.

“Hopefully we can get a donated space, so I don’t have to do this all out of my home,” he says.

Photos courtesy of Little RES Q.