SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
A kindergarten class in Stone Harbor, N.J., recently said bon voyage to a group of 18 orphaned turtles.
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LISA FERGUSON: All right. You stand right here. We're going to drop them here in the mud.
PFEIFFER: These students are part of a program that for more than 20 years has saved thousands of diamond terrapin turtles.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The teeny tiny kindergarteners meet the teeny tiny turtles at the beginning of the school year. The kids help raise the turtles, then set them free around this time every year. Lisa Ferguson is director of research and conservation at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor.
FERGUSON: They live in this community, so it's important that they understand the threats to the species, their biology, what's important to them. And then at the end of that year, they come visit us for a program. They get T-shirts that have turtle crossing on it, and then they get a chance to release their turtles back to the marsh.
KELLY: They even sell cookies throughout the year with the proceeds going to diamond terrapin conservation.
PFEIFFER: These little turtles are originally harvested as eggs from their mothers who were killed near the shore where they nest. The babies are raised in captivity for a year. That gives them time to mature before being returned to the wild.
FERGUSON: When it comes time to release them, they're much larger, but so are the kindergartners. They've been through a year of school. They're more confident. Some of them are very excited, and some of them a little bit more hesitant to hold them. But we help get the job done. They get to wave them - wave goodbye, wish them well. And it's usually a pretty fantastic event of the year. For us, it's kind of a highlight of the season.
PFEIFFER: About 500 turtles are killed on New Jersey roads each year. Ferguson says unfortunately, the program can't replenish all of the turtles lost.
KELLY: But to help the long-term prospects of the species, they incubate hatchlings at a specific temperature to ensure they develop into females. And then...
FERGUSON: We will release typically around 150 to 200 turtles. So we get to kind of watch these head starters and other wild turtles over the course of their lives and learn about their patterns, their conservation needs. There are a lot of threats to marsh - salt marshes with flooding, sea level rise, climate change and try to understand habitat availability and how those changes are affecting the population.
KELLY: Ferguson hopes the kids in her program eventually will grow up to be lifelong turtle lovers.
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