Turtle Rescue’s Donna Moot (Image: Archi Banal)
Turtle Rescue’s Donna Moot (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyNovember 25, 2023

Meet Christchurch’s legendary turtle rescuer

Turtle Rescue’s Donna Moot (Image: Archi Banal)
Turtle Rescue’s Donna Moot (Image: Archi Banal)

When there’s a loose turtle in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call?

When the big quake hit Christchurch in February 2011, Donna Moot was in her Somerfield garage unloading a big delivery of turtle food. The garage door slammed shut, plunging her into pitch darkness as she was thrown to the ground, dozens of turtle tanks buckling, cracking and shattering around her. Outside, huge waves left her ponds half empty. Inside her house, more tanks exploded, turtles spilling onto the floor or becoming trapped between broken bits of glass. 

With no running water and her neighbour’s collapsed chimney blocking the driveway, Moot had only one option to keep her 48 rescue turtles alive. She lugged enormous containers down to the nearby school on Selwyn Street to fill them with water and drag them all the way back home. On the floor of her lounge, the turtles sat wrapped in towels inside plastic storage bins, each taking turns through the day and night to have some precious time in the water.

“It was horrific,” she recalls. “Just an awful, awful time.” While she struggled to keep her existing cohort of turtles alive, the days following the quake also saw an enormous influx of pet turtles surrendered to her front door. “I ended up with people on my doorstep saying ‘I’ve got nothing – my house is gone and I’ve got the kids in the car and our turtles are in a box, can you help us?’” she says, blinking away tears. “It still makes me cry just thinking about it.” 

Some of Donna’s turtles in February, 2011

Mozzie, a 46 year-old long-necked turtle, was one of those quake surrenders. He stares out from his tank, face plastered with a perpetual dopey grin, as Moot excuses herself to take a turtle-based phone call. Whether it’s people needing a temporary home for their turtles, families looking to adopt or owners simply needing advice, Moot happily fields inquiries all hours of the day. “No worries, see you 7.30 tonight,” she says, hanging up. “That’s my life”. 

Working by day in community mental health, Moot is also the sole operator of Turtle Rescue, the longest-running and most well-known turtle rescue organisation in the country. For the last 16 years, she estimates she has had well over 1,000 turtles come through her door. On the day I visit, she’s got 75 turtles in residence. “OUR TURTLES AND OUR CAMERAS ARE WATCHING YOU!” a sign reads at the gate. “DROP OFFS BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.” 

“Watch, they do bite,” she warns as I peer through some pond weed, catching a glimpse of a reptilian head gliding beneath the surface. Just last week, Moot had the end of her thumb “nipped off” by a turtle visitor. “There was a lot of blood” she says cheerily, waving a plastered digit in the air. Honey, her Chinese Crested / Pomeranian cross, had a similar experience when a turtle bit a chunk out of her nose pondside. “Thankfully that’s put her right off.” 

An Australian painted turtle smiles for the camera. Image: Alex Casey

Despite the injuries, Moot’s love of turtles has spanned a half century, beginning when she travelled to Singapore as a teenager. “Everywhere I went, there were turtles. They were in so many gardens, just basking and swimming, and I found it all quite therapeutic.” The first turtle she ever purchased was Rocky, now 38 years old, who chills in a raised pond along the driveway. Next to him lurks a diva female, brought back to the rescue after she started “bullying” the turtles at her new home. 

That’s just one of the dramatic backstories that have led to turtles being in Moot’s care – she’s seen everything from dog bites to car accidents, dumpings to walkabouts, marriage breakups to family tragedies. Her garage is lined with tanks which serve as a toasty winter chalet for the turtles when temperatures plummet. “Here’s a nice little boy, Frankie,” she says, gesturing to a sweet, shy shape in the corner. “I’ve had about three different families come in and say ‘yes, yes, we’ll adopt them’. And then you never hear from them again, which is quite sad.” 

It’s normal for turtles to stay with her for over five years before they find a new home. “People don’t realise they can live for 50-odd years” she explains. “So many people contact me because their four-year-old wants a turtle. I have to ask them, ‘when little four-year-old Johnny is 54, is he still going to want that turtle?’” There’s also the upkeep – tanks must be at least four feet long, the water needs to be changed weekly, and females need a pond for laying eggs. Moot is well-versed in her spiel, and won’t adopt out to anyone who doesn’t have the right facilities.

Long necks, don’t care. Image: Alex Casey

Indeed, Moot’s turtle knowledge seems unsurpassed. We sit back in the sun among a veritable United Nations of turtles – American red eared sliders, Australian longnecks, Asian Reeves – as she shares some things she has learnt over her years of turtle ownership. Turns out there’s only one correct way to pack a turtle for transport (“towel, turtle, towel”), one method of removal when a turtle latches onto your flesh (“run cold water on their head and they eventually let go”) and one way to do turtle CPR (“pump the front legs really fast”). 

As well as the surrenders, many of Moot’s rescues have been found in waterways, or wandering the dusty rural roads of Canterbury. “Turtles are real escape artists. People don’t realise they move fast. They put them on the lawn for a bit of sun, which is lovely, but then they run and answer the phone and when they come back the turtle is gone.” She holds up Tootles, who was found strolling a shingle road in Woodend after almost being run over by a horse float.

Although they only entered the New Zealand pet trade in the late 1950s, Moot says it hasn’t taken long for turtles to have a serious impact on our environment. The Red Eared Slider in particular is one of the most noxious turtles, and has been listed as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. “In the egg-laying season, they could lay up to 17-20 eggs every three to four weeks,” she explains. “You see why breeders love them.” 

A RES heads for the water. Image: Alex Casey

The problems arise when they make it into the wild. “These guys have a really strong mouth, they can absolutely kill,” says Moot. “And they will do anything to survive.” Turtles can easily drag wading birds into the water, steal eggs from native nests and, in some instances, even devour household pets. Amber, a turtle found in the Amberley river, passed grey fur for days upon arrival at Moot’s. “It was either a rabbit or a cat,” she muses. “It was certainly not a rat.” 

Due to their impact on the environment, Auckland Council banned the sale of the species last year in an attempt to control the population and stop them being dumped in lakes such as Western Springs Park. In Christchurch, Moot has had a huge influence in ending the sale of turtles in pet stores such as Animates, PetStock and Redwood Aquatics. “Now when people come in wanting a turtle, they all say ‘well, have you been to Donna?’” she laughs. 

While these are positive steps, Moot wants to see the sale of turtles on online platforms like Trade Me banned entirely. “There’s just not enough information going out with them,” she says. “You’ve got breeders who sell them for $38, pop them in the post and send them all over the country. Once that turtle is out the door, that’s it gone. That breeder doesn’t see these turtles that come in here year in, year out, in horrific condition due to people not having all the information they need.” 

She introduces me to Darcy, a 16-year-old Red Eared Slider, who flails around in circles on his side in a tank in her lounge. “He only has one lung because he was kept in a frog tank for the first three years of his life,” says Moot. “Humans did that to him.” People have dumped their turtles without warning at her gate, in her garage, even in her conservatory on a steaming hot day, but Moot tries to never let her emotions get in the way.  “I work really hard on not being judgmental. Educating people to make better decisions is much better than telling them off.”

Darcy the turtle swims on his side. Image: Alex Casey

Despite her power bills sometimes soaring over $1,000 a month, and a slow adoption rate of only a few dozen turtles a year for $20 per turtle, 63-year-old Moot doesn’t have any plans to retire her turtle rescuing duties anytime soon. “Physically, I have got some quite significant pain, osteoarthritis and stuff, which makes it harder to do this, but I still love it.” Although she spends her days working with traumatised people in the community, she says those who seek out Turtle Rescue have often experienced hardship too. 

“You know, that turtle could be arriving at my door because someone committed suicide and it was their turtle, or the kids have finally left home, or there’s been a marriage breakup, or someone is going through treatment for cancer,” she says. “There’s so many stories like that and, as long as I can help these people, I intend to keep doing this as long as I can.” She has a saying to remind herself who she is helping: “those turtles don’t walk up my drive on their own.” 

Our interview is again interrupted by a knock at the door – two women from Oamaru have arrived to adopt a couple of Donna’s turtles. They work with animals, but I watch as Moot patiently, gently, carefully takes them through her entire turtle care spiel (towel, turtle, towel) before waving goodbye to Jemima and Lulu as they depart for their new home down South. “That feels really good,” she beams, closing the door. “Two gone, many more to go.”

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