Wildlife rehabilitator has shaped her life around patching shells
By Chloe Bennett
Debbie Philp was deep in a meditative drum circle when she came face-to-face with an unexpected visitor: a dancing turtle.
The meditation was designed to take Philp and her friends to a different state of consciousness, but she was initially confused by the animal’s presence. Shortly after the experience, Philp decided to adopt a red-eared slider from a pet store, setting in motion a calling to protect and heal turtles.
“I consider this part of my ministry and service,” Philp, 54, said. “Part of it is giving back to the Earth. We do so much damage as humans. If I can help these turtles, I can heal them, I can put them back, it just feels like a sacred work to do it.”
The shamanic experience from 2015 has since guided her career and shaped her reputation as a wildlife rehabilitator. In 2018, Philp was licensed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to help injured turtles. Sometimes, depending on their prognosis, the turtles will live out the rest of their days with Philp.
Most of Philp’s property in Schroon Lake is dedicated to her rehabilitation mission. An enclosed shelter made from a carport greets visitors in her front yard. The structure is called “Turtle Hall” and houses some of the reptiles when the weather is warm. Next to it, a large renovated school bus contains several turtles recovering from injuries, often from street traffic.
The turtle bus operates as any other intensive care unit – but with plastic tubs for hospital rooms where Philp administers medicine and dressings. Philp fastened heat lamps over the animals’ tubs to keep them warm and regulate the bus’ temperature. The tubs are lined up in a row with patient names and medical records on display. In June, a turtle Philp named Crystal was admitted with an eye injury. She receives medicated drops. Tracy came wounded from a hook. She requires pain medication. Many of the recovering turtles get similar care.
Philp’s daughter bought the long white bus nine years ago in Maryland with the intention of renovating it to drive around the country. After getting a job, her daughter had less time for the bus and eventually moved on from the project. Philp has been using it as a turtle hospital since.
“I called her and I said, ‘I’m seizing your bus for back rent,’” she said.
Philp starts each day tending to the turtles in the bus clinic. When a patient is first rescued, Philp usually starts with fluids and pain medication prescribed by a veterinarian and repairs their shells if struck by a car or attacked by an animal. If a turtle doesn’t make it, Philp said she honors them with a burial in her yard.
Although Philp’s passion lies in wildlife rehabilitation, her career is in yoga instruction and Reiki healing. She is not compensated for nursing turtles but receives donations through her organization, Dancing Turtle Rescue and North Country Wildcare, a nonprofit with licensed volunteers around the area.
Most members of North Country Wildcare have a specific animal they care for, and some take in several kinds of wildlife. The organization has a hotline for animals in danger and receives around 100 calls a day, Philp said. The organization has volunteers in Warren, Washington, Saratoga, Albany, Schenectady, Essex, Fulton, Montgomery and Rensselaer counties, according to its website.
Many turtles Philp rescues sustain injuries from cars on the road, which could be leading to turtles’ overall population decline. As of 2020, 187 out of 360 species of turtle were endangered according to a study from Current Biology. Habitat loss, predation and disease are other major threats against turtles according to Lisa Pipino, biologist for the Department of Environmental Conservation. Warming temperatures could also lead to a decline in the reptiles.
“Future potential impacts from climate change are an additional concern for many populations,” she said.
Pipino said the public can combat the existing threats by helping turtles cross busy roads, leaving wild turtles in their habitats, not releasing pet turtles into unknown areas and reporting possible poaching. Philp shared some of the same advice about Blanding’s turtles, which are often targeted because of their vibrant yellow necks.
“If we had one come into rehab, I would never share where it came from because they are poached often,” she said.
When she’s not nursing wildlife or teaching yoga and Reiki, Philp is educating the public on turtle rehabilitation and conservation. In late June, she spoke to families and students at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC) about her work and how researchers are continually making discoveries about these ancient creatures.
“There’s so much that they don’t know about how turtles do a lot of things,” Philp told listeners. “Even their ability to process oxygen, they’re just starting to discover that in animals that have been around for 230 million years.”
After spending four years surrounded by turtles, Philp said she has learned some valuable lessons from the reptiles. The main one, she said, is patience.
“You learn not to panic because everything is slow with them,” she said. “They’re so resilient that even when you get a turtle in that’s really badly injured, it’s like, I don’t have to fix this right this minute. There’s a calm serenity to most of them.”