Lorri Cramer didn’t set out to raise shell.
“It was all an accident,” says Cramer, 72, Manhattan’s go-to — and only — turtle rehabilitator. Her unexpected career as a “turtle triage nurse” began four decades ago, when she took in a battered tortoise her nephew rescued after spotting kids playing catch with the creature on Long Island. Cramer and her husband, Mitchell, called her Lavinia.
“In those days, it was very hard to get a turtle sitter, so we took Lavinia everywhere,” says Cramer, including in their building elevator and out into the city streets. A neighbor who saw the trio slipped a card with contact information for the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society under their door. Now the society’s director of rehabilitation, Cramer estimates that she treats around 350 turtles a year. And all of her reptilian patients pass through the makeshift hospital set up across 20 tanks in her Upper West Side apartment.
Lorri Cramer’s 8-year-old turtle, Opus.STEPHEN YANGAnd since mid-March, thanks to the coronavirus, the Queens native has been locked down with 35 turtles in the 96th Street pad she shares with Mitchell, two cats and a spaniel dog. “Our living room looks like a pet store that just happens to have couches in it,” says Cramer, who estimates it costs upwards of $6,000 per year to take care of the turtles, which she pays for through donations and out of her own pocket.
The aquarium dwellers don’t seem to care that she’s home more these days. Adds Cramer, “The turtles have no idea there’s a pandemic.”
But even a health crisis doesn’t mean house rules are negotiable. “I promise my husband that there will be no turtles in one of the bathrooms. And the bedroom is turtle-free,” says Cramer, adding, “unless the tortoises are hiding under the bed, but they’re not supposed to.”
Some of Lorri Cramer’s rescued turtles.J.C. RIceRelying on her gut instincts plus wisdom from a network of vets and scientists, Cramer uses surgical tape, gauze, bandages, soap, eye drops, salves and syringes filled with antibiotics to nurse her charges back to health. “I’m not a veterinarian. I’m not even a scientist,” says Cramer, who’s trained as an art teacher.
Equipped with her makeshift methods, she’s even battled a coronavirus-like outbreak this past year. “I got two diamondback terrapins from Jamaica Bay last fall with upper respiratory infections,” says Cramer. “It takes turtles a long time to get better. They’ve been healing for a few months, but they’ll be back in the water by July.”
Despite lacking any formal vet education, she’s built quite the reputation: Officials from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), US Fish and Wildlife Service and regional police departments know to call Cramer whenever they seize contraband turtles from a building or an aircraft. Some are endangered, while others are too small to be traded. (Their shells must measure four inches in diameter in order to be sold legally.) Sometimes turtles are purchased so that shells can be ground up and added to tinctures espoused by folk medicine. Markets sell them as food. Buddhists often release them into the wild in a karma-boosting ceremony that Cramer has lobbied to make safer.
Lorri Cramer with Chili, 28, a red from tortoise confiscated from a wildlife smuggler at an airport.STEPHEN YANGOnce, a busted Long Island drug dealer had to surrender his 13 snapping turtles, who were split between Cramer and another wildlife worker. “We released them into the ponds around Suffolk County,” says Cramer. Returning turtles to natural environments is always the goal, if possible, but it can be difficult to execute if an appropriate ecosystem for that species isn’t found in or near the city. There can be negative consequences when they are dumped in their un-natural habitats: Earlier this year, for example, abandoned pet turtles wreaked havoc in Central Park and Morningside Park ponds; the red-eared sliders pushed out native turtles and risked exposing visitors to salmonella.
In 2015, Cramer was slammed with 620 hatchlings that the DEC agents recovered from a Chinatown warehouse. But that army of red-eared slider turtles that took over her bathtub in the weeks following the raid, she says, was still less overwhelming than the mass rescues she performed in the early 1990s. “After ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ came out, every kid wanted a turtle, and they would play with them like action figures,” she recalls. “A lot of the turtles got broken limbs or a broken shell.”
J.C. RIceShe doesn’t discriminate: land ones (like mud turtles), semi-aquatics (like red-eared sliders) and water turtles (including snappers) have all taken temporary shelter under the roof of her rental.
The extensive menagerie of the wildlife rehabilitator may call to mind Big Cat Rescue CEO Carole Baskin, the Tampa-based animal-rights activist and sworn enemy of Joe Exotic, star of the docu-series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” on Netflix. But Cramer bristles at the comparison. “I saw part of the show, and I wasn’t a fan,” she says. “[Joe Exotic] was in it for money, and people in the turtle world are, too.”
Carole BaskinMirrorpix / MEGAAnd when Cramer has more turtles than she (or her apartment) can handle, she’ll find folks to foster them. “I have a backlog of turtles that are waiting to be adopted,” she says. Cramer relies on local zoos, collectors and like-minded rehabbers across state lines to take in strays, so she can keep most of her tank space dedicated to sick animals.
Still, she finds that once she names a turtle, it becomes almost impossible to give it away.
Some of Cramer’s favorite rescues are Chilly, Pepper and Diva, all still creeping around their tanks; a deformed diamondback terrapin she calls Opus; and then there’s Mother Rockaway, who was run over by a truck in Far Rockaway, then convalesced under Cramer’s care and eventually birthed nine hatchlings. She estimates her oldest pets are in their 70s. A turtle can live more than 100 years, but there are occasions to mourn: Most recently, for the late Splash, a slider gifted to her daughter in the 1980s.
Chili.STEPHEN YANGEven the pandemic hasn’t stopped the train of tortoises in need. “A few people called recently,” Cramer says. “A man with Alzheimer’s with three turtles we’re trying to find a new home for; a man who wants to give up his tortoises; and there was even a woman who passed away from COVID, and her daughter called to give me her turtle.”
Although space is cramped, Cramer adds, urban animal lovers find ways to help their favorite species fend off ills. “There’s another woman on the West Side who does possums, and I know of people who take in squirrels,” she says.
Caring for the creatures is a boon for Cramer’s health, too. During the monthslong stay-at-home order, caring for her three dozen reptiles “has been a saving grace,” she says. “When things get too horrifying in the world, and I just can’t read the news anymore, I’m able to be with my animals.”
Lorri Cramer didn’t set out to raise shell.