Rescues spur bid to raise awareness of turtles, environment at Smiley Pond

Nature lover Ari Zorn said his rescue of snapping turtles struggling in a clump of sticks and brush that had collected at the base of the waterfall at Smiley Pond in Egremont "was one of those emergency, panic things - I felt like I was watching things die."

EGREMONT — Ari Zorn is accustomed to taking daily, largely uneventful walks around Smiley Pond, but during one walk in early June, Zorn saw something horrifying.

On the other side of the pond's dam was a mess of snapping turtles, struggling in a clump of sticks and brush that had collected at the base of the waterfall.

They were drowning, Zorn said.

"It was one of those emergency, panic things — I felt like I was watching things die," said Zorn, a 51-year-old nature lover and owner of the local business Zorn Core Fitness.

Zorn ran to his home by the pond, also referred to and shown on maps as Mill Pond, and grabbed a shovel.

While one of his three children recorded the action, Zorn climbed down to the base of the dam and began pulling turtles — one after the other — out of the debris. He got the turtles a few feet over the dam and into the pond, where he buoyed them for a bit with his shovel before the turtles settled on rocks.

In all, Zorn said, he saved eight to nine turtles that day.

"To me, these are beautiful, prehistoric creatures — they've been here forever," Zorn said. "We need to keep them safe."

Soon after the incident, Zorn created the Friends of Smiley Pond Facebook page and has begun spreading awareness about the animals and an environment at risk.

The turtle-crossing problem began in 2007, Zorn said, when a new combination bridge and dam was installed at the pond on Route 41. The bridge includes a ramp specially built for the turtles to get them across the dam. But the turtles won't use it.

Smiley Pond is bordered by roadway on all sides. To get to the pond to lay eggs, turtles are trying to make it across the rocks and are getting swept away by water off the dam. The ones that get stuck in the debris risk drowning, but the ones that wind up downstream try again and again.

Zorn took his concern to the Egremont Conservation Commission, but the local commission doesn't have any jurisdiction over the state-owned bridge/dam. The group did recommend that the pond's owner plant four new trees to replace some dead willows, which will help the overall health of the pond's environment but it won't do much for the turtles in the short term.

"We're just wishing him the best, because it has to do with the Department of Environmental Protection, and [Department of] Transportation. They're the ones who built the dam," said Conservation Commission Chairman Bill Tynan.

Zorn said he has reached out to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, MassWildlife and MassDOT — and he's getting supportive responses, though a solution for the turtles is yet to form.

Zorn has been back to the dam to rescue turtles since June. He pulled five turtles from the brush during another visit to the pond. So far, Zorn said, each turtle that he has encountered in the brush, he has been able to save.

Overall, Zorn would like a new method for the turtles to cross the dam, but he also would like to see the pond have a plan for preservation. Zorn, who moved to Egremont in 1999, said he has seen wildlife by the pond diminish over time.

"The silt from the mountain and nutrients, everything, gets washed into the pond and it slowly fills up with more weeds and plants and less water," Zorn said.

In addition to public officials getting involved in saving the turtles, local people have stopped by to help haul away brush, and Green Berkshires donated trees for planting, he said.

"This is about the revitalization of the entire pond — it's renowned for bird-watching — and it's dying and I want to stop that," Zorn said. "That's what this process is really about, but if people want to call me the `Turtle Man,' then that's fine, too. Whatever brings attention to the pond."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, 413-629-4621.