Winter storm: Volunteers in Texas saving thousands of cold-stunned sea turtles

Winter storm: Dozens dead, many without power

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — Freezing weather in Texas has put the lives of thousands of sea turtles in danger. A group of volunteers has been working feverishly to save the turtles from certain death.

Residents near South Padre Island -- some of whom lack heat and running water in their homes -- have been rescuing the cold-stunned sea turtles and taking them to a convention center, according to The Associated Press.

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“Every 15 minutes or less there’s another truck or SUV that pulls up,” Ed Caum, executive director of the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the AP. “We had trailers full yesterday coming in that had 80, 100, 50.”

Sea Turtle, Inc., a nonprofit education, rehabilitation and conservation organization in South Padre Island, has taken in nearly 4,500 sea turtles since Sunday, according to NPR. Executive Director Wendy Knight told NPR that local volunteers have been retrieving the turtles by boat and on foot.

“The love and support of people who just want to help things that can’t help themselves is overwhelming,” Knight said.

Jenny Davalos, from Harlingen, Texas, had been out of power since Sunday. When she saw social media posts asking for 4x4 trucks to help transport the turtles, she and her family decided to help.

“I am a nurse and due to no power in the clinic at work I had extra time to kill,” Davalos told The Monitor of McAllen. “Plus, I thought it would be a beautiful experience for my daughter, she loves animals. She said she fell in love with the babies so we had them in the backseat wrapped in blankets.”

In Texas, subzero temperatures and sustained power outages have affected humans and animals. The Arctic chill has been particularly harsh in Texas and the southern United States, The Washington Post reported.

Near Houston, more than a dozen dogs were rescued from freezing weather, KHOU reported. Shelters in Austin and the Texas Panhandle pleaded with the public for generators and scrambled to defrost wells, the Post reported. At a primate sanctuary in San Antonio, monkeys, lemurs and at least one chimpanzee froze to death after the electricity went out at the 70-acre facility.

“I never, ever thought my office would turn into a morgue, but it has,” Brooke Chavez, the director of Primarily Primates, told the San Antonio Express-News. “We won’t truly know how many animals have died until the temperatures rise and the snow starts to melt.”

Sea turtles are cold-blooded animals and are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather because they are unable to regulate their body temperature, NPR reported. Cold stun occurs when water temperatures drop below 50 degrees, which is rare off the Texas coast. Sea turtles remain awake but lose the ability to move, which can lead to death by injury, stranding or drowning, according to NPR.

Sanjuana Zavala, a spokeswoman for Sea Turtle, Inc., told the Post that green sea turtles live year-round in the Laguna Madre, a salty lagoon located between the mainland and barrier islands on Texas’s Gulf Coast.

The turtles, sometimes called the “lawn mowers of the ocean,” thrive off the area’s thick, underwater vegetation and keep the ecosystem balanced.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, all five species of sea turtles found in Texas are considered either threatened or endangered.

When Sea Turtle Inc. could no longer handle the number of sea turtles being dropped off at the facility, officials with the South Padre Island Convention Center began to help, according to the AP.

Caum said they have “collected” more than 3,500 sea turtles so far, adding that he hesitates to use the term “rescued” because “we know we’re going to lose some.”

Knight called this week’s cold snap “the Armageddon of all cold stuns,” because while her organization prepares for cold stuns, they did not anticipate the power outages that have plagued Texas.

“We have exacerbated a once-in-a-few-decade experience by a holdback of the power grid and a holdback of our electric support,” Knight told NPR.

Davalos said her family rescued 30 turtles and stayed to help trucks that were getting stuck in the mud.

“I saw some pretty amazing people do some amazing things out there, it was very humbling,” Davalos told The Monitor.