What to do if you find a turtle in the road

Slow and steady is the right approach.
A turtle crossing a road.
A turtle on a mission. Ray Hennessy / Unsplash

North America is home to dozens of turtle species, from the soda can-sized bog turtle to the devastatingly handsome alligator snapping turtle. Each spring, countless turtles emerge from the sleepy winter months ready to nest, find food, and resume their more active warm-weather lifestyles. Unfortunately, these journeys toward favored habitats and ideal nesting spots often involve treacherous trips across roads. 

While you should keep an eye out for these chonky reptiles year-round, spring is the perfect time to brush up your turtle-rescuing skills in case they come in handy on your next drive. Pay special attention to roads near forests, parks, and wetland areas—you may have a chance to save a reptilian life.

Keep humans safe first

You’re no use to a wandering turtle if you get hit by a car or cause a crash while trying to lend a helping hand. If you see a turtle on the pavement or by the side of a road facing toward traffic, carefully stop your vehicle and turn on its hazard lights. This will help alert other drivers to the situation. If possible, pull over to the side of the road and exit your vehicle only when it’s safe to do so.

Take on crossing guard duty

The best way to help a turtle cross a road is to keep humans, pets, and vehicles at bay until it can safely cross on its own. If the turtle is moving independently from one side of the road to the other, simply keep watch from a distance, the Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society says. If it’s safe to do so, direct vehicles around it. While turtles have a reputation for slowness, it shouldn’t take one more than a few minutes to cross safely. Once it’s out of harm’s way, let traffic resume as normal and return to your vehicle.

Lend a helping hand, but only when necessary

While most turtles have an idea of where they want to go, some might need a little assistance getting there safely. If the turtle in question is stuck on its back, moving extremely slowly, not moving at all, or has retracted its head and limbs into its shell, you may need to intervene to get it out of harm’s way. These tips are intended for a shy or stubborn but otherwise healthy turtle—we’ll get to injured turtles in a moment.

[Related: A rare two-headed turtle is alive and thriving, surprising scientists]

We’ll also note that you should take special care if you encounter a snapping turtle. While adults will likely be too large to pick up, even small ones will defend themselves if they feel threatened. The Toronto Zoo has an informative video tutorial for handling this specific species of turtle.

How to pick up small turtles

If you’ve encountered a turtle you can easily pick up and feel comfortable doing so, gently and firmly grasp the turtle’s sides with both hands, MATTS says. Hold it like you would a large sandwich: support the underside with your fingers while placing your thumbs on the top of the shell. Your hands should be between the turtle’s front and back legs on each side. Lift the turtle only as high as you need to in order to walk it to safety. If possible, have someone else direct traffic while you do this.

It’s very important not to lift the turtle by only its top shell, grab or pull a turtle’s tail, or drop it. We repeat: do not let go under any circumstances: an impact onto pavement can be fatal. Be prepared for the turtle to urinate or try to bite or scratch you when you lift it up. These aren’t signs of aggression: they’re merely defense mechanisms the turtle is employing in a stressful situation. If needed, gently set the turtle back down to adjust your grip before lifting it up again. Never hold a turtle with only one hand, as its weight and smooth shell could cause you to drop it.

What to do if you encounter a large turtle

If you come across a turtle that looks too large to comfortably lift, don’t test your strength by trying to pick it up anyway. Softshell turtles, snapping turtles, and other large species are usually fragile and unwieldy. While they aren’t likely to actually bite or injure you, it’s best to approach these gentle giants from behind. Help them along with a soft push to the back of the shell using a sturdy stick or another long object that lets you keep your distance.

If this doesn’t help speed up the turtle’s trip across the road, place a car mat in front of it and encourage it to climb aboard with a few gentle nudges. Once the turtle has all four feet on the mat, drag it the rest of the way across the road and let the turtle walk off. A large piece of cardboard can also work if you don’t have a mat available.

Respect turtles’ plans

Turtles generally have a good sense of where they are and where they’re going. If you encounter a turtle moving or facing in a particular direction, help it continue to move in that direction. Returning a turtle to the side of the road it came from won’t do any good: it will just try to cross the road again when you leave.

If you’ve encountered a turtle belly-up, lift it gently and place it on its feet. It may cross the road independently or walk away of its own accord. If it doesn’t move, carry it to the side of the road and monitor it for a few minutes to see which direction it goes. It likely has a destination in mind, and the best thing to do is help it get there safely. 

It’s also important not to remove the turtle from its immediate territory by driving it to a local park or nature preserve, MATTS says. This unexpected change of scenery could leave the turtle vulnerable to disease and environmental stress. Even if you think you know a great, safe place for the turtle to go, it’s best to leave it to its own devices once you’ve removed it from harm’s way.

What to do with an injured turtle

If a turtle appears injured or unable to move, gently remove it from the road using the techniques above and contact your local fish and wildlife department for advice on what to do next. Your local experts may talk you through the best course of action over the phone, or they may send staff who are trained and equipped to handle the injured turtle. While you wait, place the turtle in a clean, dry container in a warm, shaded area away from predators, according to the Central Mississippi Turtle Rescue. Don’t drive it anywhere new unless instructed to do so by animal specialists, and record the location where you found it. This will help rehabilitators release it back into familiar habitat once it is well enough to return to the wild. You can also report the species and location of your sighting to citizen science initiatives like HerpMapper to help researchers study turtle populations.