Students aim to save endangered alligator snapping turtle by Scott Hilyard

Are high school students the missing link toward ensuring the alligator snapping turtle doesn’t go the way of the dodo bird and the passenger pigeon?

Is that even a real question?

The answer to each is a resounding yes, at least to Paul Ritter, a sublimely enthusiastic environmental science teacher at Pontiac Township High School. He drove a handful of students (and his mom) to the Peoria Zoo at Glen Oak Park on Wednesday to help get the ball rolling on the whole Save The Alligator Snapping Turtle campaign that has him as excited as an alligator snapper is, well, ugly. Sorry.

“What we are about to embark on, which is insane, not many people are trying to do and that’s trying to bring a species back from the brink of extinction,” Ritter said. “We are going to help with the reintroduction of these turtles in Illinois and it might be a small role, but it’s a vital role.”

With the support of Joe Kath, the endangered species project manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and the assistance of the Peoria Zoo, Ritter and his students may soon become foster parents for a bunch of turtles. And if the Pontiac project proves to be a success, Ritter hopes it will become the template for programs in science classes across Illinois, and beyond.

You see, the alligator snapping turtle, an animal that looks like it would live more comfortably in the Jurassic period than a period when Lady Gaga freely roams the planet, needs friends. As many as it can get. The turtle, which is different from the common snapping turtle, is an endangered species in Illinois. No alligator snapping turtle has been seen in the wild in the state since 1984. More than 3,000 survey hours spent looking for the species turned up zero alligator snapping turtles.

“They are an extirpated species,” Kath said at the zoo Wednesday. “Meaning they don’t exist in the wild anymore in Illinois, although they can be found elsewhere in the world.”
Like the one in the tank at the Peoria Zoo — probably the least visually interesting animal at the zoo, sitting motionless and half-submerged beneath a broken limb — and the 30 to 40 more in Rubbermaid tubs in an off-limits back room. For about five years the zoo has housed and tended to snapper “hatchlings” as part of the IDNR’s efforts to introduce the species back into Illinois wetlands. The program would need between 1,800 to 2,000 of the animals — males and females of varying ages — for any chance of success, Kath said. That could be more than 15 years away.

That’s where the students come in.

“The more people in on this, the better the chance of success,” Ritter said.

Ritter, who is the national environmental science teacher of the year, hopes to get some turtles to raise in his classroom in Pontiac. Then he hopes other science classes will sign on in the future.

“It’s both an academic pursuit and the pursuit of saving the species,” Ritter said. “You couldn’t have one without the other. What an opportunity for the students.”

Pontiac senior Amanda Muir agreed with her teacher.

“I don’t know much about turtles,” said Muir, who spent the drive to Peoria reading turtle trivia out of “Peterson’s Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians.” “But I plan to learn. Being involved in a project like this where the goal is to actually save a species is pretty exciting.”

Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244, by email at or on Twitter at @scotthilyard