The Turtle Lady of the Upper West Side

Lorri Cramer with one of her Charges at Inwood Hill on May 9. 

Lorri Cramer with one of her Charges at Inwood Hill on May 9. 

Lorri Cramer be bringing her turtles to Open House on  July 26. 

Lorri Cramer has about 20 tanks in her living room for rehabilitating turtles. She also has a very understanding husband.   

 “I’m lucky in that he loves me enough to let me have my turtles,” she said. 

Turtles have always been a part of the Cramer family. She said that when her kids were young they were proud of mom’s passion, when they were teens not so much, and now, as adults, they’ve come back around. Her daughter is now a field biologist. 

“People don’t expect that turtles have a personality, but every turtle is different,” she said. “Some are outgoing and gregarious and some are shy, just like people or dogs.”

Cramer said that wood turtles and box turtles tend to be some of the smartest. She attributes their smarts to being semiaquatic, constantly making decisions as to whether to stay on land or go into the water. She says that box turtles are not great swimmers but wade along the banks.

There used to be box turtles throughout Manhattan, and wood turtles in Riverdale. Now, both are listed by New York State as “species of special concern.” The combination of habitat destruction, pollution and illegal collection has taken a toll. Box turtles are easy to pick up, and people did, taking them home as pets and stripping the island of its signature turtle.

She said that the most abundant turtle species in the Hudson is the snapping turtle. The snapper gets a lot of bad press; people are afraid of them, she said.  For the most part, snappers are shy when underwater. Their aquatic nature leaves them with little need for a hard bottom shell, known as a plastron. When females come out of the water to lay eggs their underbelly is exposed. Their only means of protection is to hiss and snap, making for a pretty mean mommy.  

Cramer is recognized as a go-to person in New York for helping turtles in need. For the past 25 years she’s been the director of rehabilitation for the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society. She’s licensed to help some turtles but not all, like the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle that was found near the Tappan Zee Bridge after Hurricane Sandy. He was sent to the Riverhead Foundation, the only organization in New York State authorized to help federally and internationally protected turtles. 

While the Tappan Zee may not be the natural habitat for the Kemp’s Ridley, it is a perfect location for a colony of Diamondback Terrapins. They once were found throughout both the Hudson and East Rivers as well as New York Harbor. Their ranks were depleted during the Roaring Twenties, when the hoi polloi indulged in a seemingly bottomless bowl of turtle soup. But then came the Depression, and people couldn’t afford the sherry used to cook the delicacy. As a result, the diamondback terrapin was saved from extinction. They are only found along the eastern seaboard, in the marshes and streams. They are only turtles to live full time in brackish water. Besides the Hudson, they can still be found in Jamaica Bay.

Cramer doesn’t think of turtle conservation as her life’s work so much as a way of life. She initially thought she’d be an artist. She puts her background in education to use for the turtles as well, reaching out to young people and teaching them about the beauty of their environment through the remarkable turtles in their metropolis. She hopes they can preserve a future for the creature.  

“Many turtles are near extinction. My wish would be for all 300 turtle species worldwide to continue to recover and thrive in the wild,” she said. “The first turtles preceded the dinosaur. They deserve to continue.”