NORRIDGEWOCK — Four snapping turtles in the turtle pond at Mill Stream Elementary School died when someone smashed their shells, and two more were injured.

Sixth-grade teacher Dana Beane said he discovered the damage last week when he went to feed the turtles before they hibernate for the winter. The pond is enclosed by a locked metal fence about 7 feet high. The gate was locked when Beane found the dead turtles.

“All the teachers take their kids out to look at this pond,” said Dana Liebowitz, who is a speech therapist at the school. “The turtles were a part of the school. I can’t believe anyone would go through such lengths to be so cruel.”

Phillip deMaynadier, a state wildlife biologist, said the attack on the turtles required a lot of thought and effort. He said whoever broke the turtles’ shells would have had to catch them, rather than simply throwing a rock at the shell.

Snapping turtles are hard to catch, especially at night when they’d likely be underwater, said deMaynadier, who specializes in reptiles and amphibians.

“Someone knew what they were doing, because without a net or a trap you’d be hard pressed to catch one or two snapping turtles,” he said. “For someone to have captured six or seven is a lot of effort.”

The pond, which was built at the same time as the school in 2008, channels runoff from the building’s roof.

In addition to the seven snapping turtles, the pond is home to painted turtles, frogs and fish and is used by science and literature classes at the school.

“We have students that have been looking at and counting these turtles all summer,” Liebowitz said. “It is really a focal point of the community.”

A gap under the fence may have allowed access to the pond, according to Liebowitz, who reported the damage to Skowhegan police and the Maine Warden Service last week.

“It’s disheartening,” she said.

Skowhegan district warden Josh Bubier said the service is investigating.

“We suspect that this was probably done by some juveniles or young kids that hang around the school and knew the turtles were there,” he said.

He said it is not illegal to kill snapping turtles for personal use, such as to eat them. If investigators catch whoever killed and hurt the turtles, the person or people would likely be charged with waste of wild game and possibly with trespassing.

“The pond is contained within a fence that is locked. A reasonable person would realize that is trespassing and it is not OK to do that,” he said.

No laws protect reptiles or amphibians that are not on the state endangered species list, deMaynadier said. The only law that pertains to snapping turtles is one that prevents them from being commercially harvested.

“It is certainly unethical and the abuse of a natural resource,” he said, “but there are really no laws that preclude the killing of turtles.”

Snapping turtles and painted turtles are the two most common types of turtles in Maine, he said. Snapping turtles are primarily aquatic bottom-feeders and, as such, have a softer underbelly than most other turtles.

“Of all the turtles in Maine, they are perhaps the most feared and reviled,” deMaynadier said. “They are highly aquatic and don’t have much shell on their underside. On land they can be more aggressive, and that has caused some people to fear them.”

On Wednesday afternoon, two of the turtles were still alive but had cracked shells. Only one was unharmed.

Turtle shells, which are made up of bone and covered by a thin skin-like layer, have a lot of nerve endings “so any injury to the shell is very painful,” according to the website of Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Turtles have slow metabolisms; therefore, healing time in turtles can be much longer than in mammals,” the website says. “While a fractured bone in a mammal can heal in six to eight weeks, a fractured shell in a turtle can take years to completely heal. Given the extent of the wounds on this turtle’s shell, it would take many years for the bone to re-grow.”

Beane released the three survivors in the Mill Stream, which runs behind the school.

“I just hope they can make it through the winter.” he said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

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