Monday, June 30, 2008

Inspiring Story - Missouri City, TX rescue mission

Great and Inspiring Story from Houston Chronicle.

Here is to view the photo gallery taken by Penny Barrett Hornsby - The person behind this amazing effort. Congratulations to Penny!

June 25, 2008, 5:42PM
Missouri City rescue mission called a success
Volunteers relocate turtles, other reptiles from abandoned golf course

Muddy, scratched and bitten - but now happy - a group of reptile-lovers is celebrating the rescue of nearly 100 turtles from the path of bulldozers at a new Missouri City commercial park.

Some four dozen volunteers worked more than three weeks last month to catch and relocate reptiles, fish and other creatures from abandoned golf course ponds at the old Willowisp Country Club. Trammell Crow is redeveloping the 168-acre property at the corner of Fondren Road and Buffalo Run as Lakeview Business Park.

The rescue was launched by a Missouri City employee who couldn’t stand to see the creatures stranded. By the time the effort was over, it had involved not only the city’s Public Works department, but police, parks workers and a half-dozen wildlife groups as well.

“I really had no idea it would mushroom the way it did,’’ said Penny Hornsby, a spatial data analyst with Missouri City’s Public Works Department. “I was so in awe of these people - their passion was so great. It gave you a great feeling to know you were doing something to help.’’

Property developers gave volunteers two weeks for their rescue mission. Volunteers waded through half-drained ponds with nets and their bare hands, rounding up turtles and fish into plastic tubs, and releasing them to nearby waterways. Sean Nolan, senior development manager for Trammell Crow, said the company was happy to help, once the city called about the stranded turtles. “We do have a corporate mission to exercise environmental stewardship,’’ Nolan said. “Basically, our role here was just being cooperative.’’ Volunteers logged at least seven turtle species, 22 alligator gar up to 2 feet long, and some 26 non-native plecostomous sucker fish up to 18 inches. The fish, possibly pet shop rejects, could not be released in the wild and ended up in a private pond. At one point, Missouri City police stopped traffic on nearby Buffalo Run, as a “mass exodus’’ of turtles staged their own relocation across that road to the lakes of Buffalo Run Park. Rounding up the stragglers from ankle- and knee-deep pond muck at the old golf course was a messy job.

“You were basically crawling around in mud, getting bitten by fire ants and scratched by pine cones,’’ said Gina Disteldorf, a Spring Branch high school biology teacher. “I was just completely filthy, basically from under my arms on down. I had mud in places there shouldn’t have been mud.’’ Hornsby said she first noticed the reptiles in early May during a picnic lunch at Buffalo Run Park. A construction inspector saw her rescue a turtle that was crossing the road and mentioned that other creatures were in danger as Lakeview development progressed and the old ponds were bulldozed. “Of course this upset me,’’ said Hornsby, who describes herself as “a huge animal lover’’ with five dogs. “I just think it’s important to not only have the environment, but also the little creatures that live there.’’

After Missouri City Public Works Director Scott Elmer secured permission from Trammell Crow, Hornsby and helpers made wire traps, baited them with chicken legs, and placed them around the old county club’s 10 or so interconnected ponds. Over the course of several weeks, they made twice-daily visits to check those traps and relocate whatever they caught. A member of Hornsby’s vegan group with whom she’d been sharing the turtles’ plight offered to post her request for help with a local turtle organization. When Disteldorf, a Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society member, read that distress call, she forwarded it to the Houston Turtlers, the Texas Area Reptile Enthusiasts, the East Texas Herpetological Society and the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition. Over one weekend in May, 17 people one day and 12 the next showed up to help. Volunteers - adults and children - returned the next weekend. All total, they plucked 92 turtles from the ponds, including cooters, red- and yellow-eared sliders, common and alligator snapping turtles and softshell and musk turtles. “It was mind-blowing how into turtles and how up to their armpits in that muck those people were,’’ Hornsby said. “They didn’t care how filthy the water was. They just started getting in there and pulling the animals out.’’

Volunteers were impressed by the developer’s and construction workers’ willingness to cooperate. “This developer was super awesome and gave us a time frame to do what we could,’’ said Disteldorf. “Most developers don’t want anybody on the property. This one was super about letting us go in and work.’’ On one day, workers with a backhoe joined in, she said. “One of their guys got inside the bucket and used one of the nets to catch stuff. That was pretty cool.’’ Hornsby was also touched when one of the burly construction workers, Sidney Oliver, an earthwork contractor for Trammel Crow, brought her a box containing a mother duck and 11 newly hatched ducklings he had been guarding. The feathered family found a new home at a city park. “It was really sweet because he was so gentle and kind,’’ Hornsby said.

Hornsby thanked her Missouri City Public Works co-workers for helping, and her bosses for allowing her time to check turtle traps during the work week. She was amazed by the interest from so many different groups. “We were thinking, `We’re only city employees. We’re only a few people.’ “But once you realize there are groups out there, that this is their passion, all you have to do is make a call.’’

As for the volunteers, they had fun in the mud. “There was a lot of camaraderie,’’ Disteldorf said. “You’re rescuing things, and it makes you feel good.’’