SURF CITY — The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center has cared for more than 1,100 endangered sea turtles over nearly three decades. It relies heavily on donations and revenues from public tours, which were halted during the pandemic; however, the work never stopped.
Now the center is receiving some financial assistance, which will help it recoup lost expenses and continue its mission to tend to sick and injured turtles.
The popular Surf City organization was recently awarded $100,703 in federal grant money from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“As we reviewed the applications for this funding, it was clear that despite the pandemic, zoos, aquariums and other facilities continued to provide extraordinary care for federally protected species,” Dan Ashe, president and CEO of Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said in a news release.
Funds are procured from a first wave of awards totaling $1.6 million under the Endangered Species Covid-19 Relief program, funded by the American Rescue Plan of 2021. ARPA appropriated $30 million total to reimburse expenses related to the care of captive species listed under the Endangered Species Act.
KBSTRRC was founded in 1996 by Jean Beasley, mother of Karen Beasley, to preserve and protect sea turtle nests along Topsail Island’s shorelines. It was always her daughter’s dream to help the turtles, so Jean continued to carry that out following Karen’s death a few years prior. A new center was erected at 302 Tortuga Lane in 2013, and since has cared for over a thousand sick or injured sea turtles, returning them back to the wild once healed.
The center’s executive director Kathy Zagzebski said the funds are vital to cover expenses needed to care for the 242 sick or injured sea turtles staff has taken in since March 2020. She submitted 81 pages of financial information and invoices to apply for this reimbursement grant.
The center’s revenue dropped by 89% between 2020 and 2021.
“We are fortunate to have had reserve funds from which we drew,” Zagzebski said. “We cut all other expenses as much as possible, putting off all but essential expenditures.”
Finances for the center’s medicines, food, diagnostic tests, surgeries, salt to make salt water and utilities are typically covered with revenue brought in from public tours, gift shop sales and onsite donations.
Zagzebski said the center welcomes up to 60,000 visitors per year, mostly between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
At the onset of the pandemic, the sea turtle hospital had no paid staff (they now have 2.5 paid employees) and relied heavily on its 100 weekly volunteers.
During turtle nesting season, May 1 to Aug. 31, the rehab center recruits an additional 200 to 300 people to help monitor the beach and protect sea turtles, nests and hatchlings.
The center was closed to the public for a year from March 2020 until 2021.
At the time it shut its door, the sea turtle center had its highest patient count ever at 109 sea turtles. Zagzebski attributed the spike to an unusually high number of cold-stunned turtles; the cold-blooded reptiles thrive best in water temperatures of at least 70 degrees.
“Cold stunning is a form of severe hypothermia from which sea turtles suffer when the water temperature drops below 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit,” Zagzebski explained. “At these temperatures, the turtle’s heart rate slows, their respiration rate slows, they stop eating, they stop swimming.”
The center normally closes annually each year just before Christmas through March to focus on the influx of cold-stunned turtles.
Costs typically run between $250 and $400 per month to house and rehab one sea turtle, depending on its condition. Turtles stay in rehab for six to 12 months; some have been with the team for years.
Zagzebski said $100,000 could help rehabilitate 20 to 80 sea turtles and protect 100 nesting females, their nests and 10,000 hatchlings.
The federal funds can be used for food, veterinary care and medicine, direct animal and plant care staff time, life-support systems, transport for medical, reintroduction into the wild, captive breeding purposes, real property debt and holding space improvements and modifications, and utilities essential for the care of species.
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