The story of The Riverwood Conservancy’s ambassador turtles begins back in the fall of 1991. Our current Education Program Director, Dave Taylor, was had just started a new position as a grade 7 and 8 science teacher at Mississauga’s Hazel McCallion Senior Public School.
At the time, the school was one year old. The science classroom was modern and well equipped, but lacked one crucial element for exceptional nature education – live animals. Dave had a 40-gallon aquarium that had accompanied him from place to place during his teaching career, and surely enough it accompanied him to his new classroom. At first the aquarium housed only guppies only but soon after a pair of new tenants moved in.
One of Dave’s students could no longer keep two turtles, red-eared sliders to be specific, which he had as pets. After some modifications were made to the aquarium to build a floating island, the turtles, named Shelley and Lady, were given a new home; a home they would stay in for 15 years.
Red-eared sliders earned their name because of the red stripe where their ears should be. Turtles do not have ears as we imagine them, and in fact their hearing is poor. They have thin flaps of skin covering internal ear bones. The term sliders comes from their habit of sliding off resting spots when they perceive a threat.
Red-eared sliders are not native to Ontario, but to the southern United States and Mexico. By rights they shouldn’t be able to survive in province, but many have been released into the wild and some have survived. They compete with our native turtles, mainly the Midland painted turtle.
In 2003, Dave retired from teaching after a 31-year career, but he quickly found himself working again, writing a feasibility study for an outdoor education program for the Mississauga Garden Council, the precursor organization to The Riverwood Conservancy.
The education program would indeed come to fruition, with Rita Schulze serving as one of its first teachers. Rita saw the need for wildlife in the classroom that could better engage elementary students than pictures or videos. As it happens, there were concerns about salmonella at Shelley and Lady’s abode at the time, so the two were transplanted to Riverwood.
In the early days of our Education Naturally program, the classroom inside the MacEwan Field Station was under renovation and not yet ready to house the turtle tank. A temporary aquarium was set up in the Chappell House greenhouse. On days Education Naturally classes took place, Rita would run to the greenhouse, put one turtle in a small container of water, then race back to the MacEwan Field Station where she could teach the students about turtles.
Shelley, the larger of the two turtles, would demonstrate the unique and fascinating anatomical features of turtles to the visiting students. Shelley was fairly easy to bribe with snacks as a reward for her performances. Lady was picky with her food, and had a more modest demeanour (hence her name). However, it turned out Lady was quite the escape artist.
While in Dave’s classroom at Hazel McCallion Senior Public School, she famously made her way out of the aquarium and spent a week hiding in the classroom. Lady later did the same trick in the Chappell House greenhouse, only to be discovered napping in a coiled water hose. Shelley and Lady now call the aquarium within the MacEwan Field Station home. The pair continues to delight students and visiting teachers alike. They’ve even made cameos on Rogers TV when the station covered past March Break events – and they loved the bright lights! Riverwood simply wouldn’t be the same without our two original teaching turtles.