UT’s Turtle Pond needs an official caretaker

Chuck Matula

“And the turtles, of course … all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be,” read the closing lines of Dr. Seuss’s children’s book, “Yertle the Turtle.” Although Dr. Seuss’s work is littered with memorable aphorisms, this one rings particularly true when read in the shade of the idyllic UT Turtle Pond. In the midst of a stressful finals season, it’s helpful to have a place like the pond for quiet self-reflection. UT students, faculty and staff are lucky enough to have the micro-ecosystem on campus.

But the future of the turtles and their pond is not as secure as it once was. Those noble, sleepy-eyed creatures have lost their long-time steward, David Hillis, a professor in the integrative biology department. Hillis has volunteered at the pond, taking care of the turtles and other inhabitants of the mirco-ecosystem since 1998 until earlier this year. He told The Daily Texan in an email that back problems have forced him to curtail his involvement with the pond.

“The biggest problem I faced was people releasing pet turtles into the pond, which disrupted the system and sometimes introduced diseases to the population,” Hillis told the Texan, recounting the difficulties of maintaining the ecosystem. “There are also issues with run-off into the pond, maintaining water quality, maintaining water level, maintaining suitable plant populations, maintaining sunning sites for the turtles, accumulation of silt and debris and occasional vandalism.”

Although some of the turtles are content to sun themselves on rocks and eat French fries thrown into the pond, some species are more aggressive. According to the Texas Exes website, botany professor emeritus Guy Thompson reported that the larger snapping turtles have been known to attack pigeons that wander too close to the water, so that they appear to “suddenly disappear below the surface with a frantic flapping of wings.” Hillis confirmed that of the four or five native Texas turtle species in the pond at any given time, there are usually a few snapping turtles.

As Texan writer Christine Ayala reported last May, UT Facilities Services maintains the pond for the most part. Although the biology department has been heavily involved in the pond’s upkeep in the recent past, the garden has no regular group to maintain it. I reached out to the office of the dean of the biology department to see if anyone had assumed Hillis’ righteous mantle in an official capacity, but no one was aware if a faculty member was involved in the pond’s maintenance.

Although we should be grateful to Facility Services for the role they play in maintaining the pond, this campus treasure should be appropriately cared for by an official sponsor that understands the delicate, natural processes that govern the Turtle Pond and its surrounding garden. The turtles and other organisms that make up the pond community have done amazing work toward creating an oasis of nature on campus for students and faculty, and we should acknowledge the responsibility to return the favor.

Matula is a finance junior from Austin. Follow him on Twitter @chucketlist.