ACT Wildlife urges Canberrans to look out for reptiles on the move for winter hibernation
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ACT Wildlife urges Canberrans to look out for reptiles on the move for winter hibernation

Canberrans aren't the only ones bracing for a cool change: in backyards and on busy roads across the territory reptiles are on the move to find the best place to hibernate for winter, putting them at an increased risk of pet attacks and car strikes.

After a summer of gorging and soaking up the sun, eastern long-necked turtles, bearded dragons, blue-tongue and shingleback lizards are just some of the native reptiles looking for a warm place to wait out the colder months.

ACT Wildlife volunteer carer Mandy Conway with a rescued blue-tongue lizard at her home in Evatt.

ACT Wildlife volunteer carer Mandy Conway with a rescued blue-tongue lizard at her home in Evatt.Credit:Rohan Thomson

For the turtles it means moving from ponds, streams and creeks and navigating busy roads while searching for deeper tracts of water like Lake Burley Griffin or Lake Ginninderra, where they will stay submerged for up to three months, ACT Wildlife volunteer carer Mandy Conway said.

But for the lizards it could mean they are bedding down in your backyard, where they are frequently attract unwanted attention from pets when they occasionally break from their hibernation on warmer winter days to eat.

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An eastern long-necked turtle rescued after it was hit by a car and left with a damaged shell.

An eastern long-necked turtle rescued after it was hit by a car and left with a damaged shell.Credit:Rohan Thomson

"In the last week I've had three blue-tongues brought in [attacked] by one cat and two dogs, and unfortunately they've suffered puncture wounds to the underneath of their belly," Mrs Conway said.

"One of them punctured a lung and you could feel it breathing through the hole, so it had to be euthanised."

Mrs Conway has a room in her home with "every conceivable form of heating imaginable" dedicated to caring for reptiles, something she has done for 30 years.

While dog attacks are likely to be more savage and often puncture the lizards' lungs and stomach, the animals need antibiotics within 24 hours to survive toxic cat bites.

The broken section of the turtle's shell may eventually die and fall off and be replaced with regrown skin.

The broken section of the turtle's shell may eventually die and fall off and be replaced with regrown skin.Credit:Rohan Thomson

She estimates one in three backyards is home to a blue-tongue and shingleback lizards, which previously kept to scrubland on Canberra's outskirts but are moving into the suburbs after the dry hot summer.

Turtles on the move are frequently struck by cars, and although broken shells will repair if pieced back together within 24 hours, the animals' recovery prospects depend on where the shell is damaged, with internal injuries common.

"In old days they'd put fibreglass over a crack, thinking it would hold it together so they could release the animal … but the fibreglass eventually peels off and that area won't heal at all," Mrs Conway said.

"What they now do is open-wound healing: the wound is treated with antibiotics and then the ends of a U-shaped clip are superglued on either side of the shell crack to provide stability."

Although many rescued animals have to be euthanised, Mrs Conway encouraged the public to call ACT Wildlife even if an animal's prospects appeared poor.

"Because the reptile system is so slow and the weather is getting cold, if they are attacked they can go for days before succumbing," she said.

Leaving hollow logs in backyards and placing small dishes of water away from the house will give lizards somewhere to hide and avoid encounters with pets.

Cats should also be kept inside between dusk and dawn.

"People say 'I've got a dog I don't want a lizard in my yard'. The fact is, it's Canberra, all you can do is try and keep a nice balance … snakes are going to come through anyway," Mrs Conway said.

She expects spring to be the next busy time for carers when reptiles sun themselves on driveways as the weather warms up.

"Unfortunately with our fragmented landscape … in the area around Gungahlin, Yerrabi Pond, and the Barton Highway, you've got multiple turtles being hit every day because there is nowhere for them to go … people have to keep an eye out."

For more information, or to report an injured animal, visit the ACT Wildlife website www.actwildlife.net.

Clare Colley is Head of Audience Engagement at The Australian Financial Review. She was previously an online editor, arts editor and journalist at The Canberra Times.

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