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Alberta turtle farmer collects weeds for winter

Alberta turtle farmer collects weeds for winter
Alberta turtle farmer collects weeds for winter

Tracy Finnegan wishes there were more weeds in her garden.

Creeping bellflower, daisy, plantain, chickweed – they’re all packed with the nutrients her four turtles (escape artist Fred, socialites Velma and Daphne, and her first, Kokanee) need.

“Part of the problem is I have weeds like this,” Finnegan told CTV News Edmonton in a recent interview, pointing to another plant along the group’s fence, “that are not safe for turtles. I have tons of whatever this is and they can’t eat it.”

She noted, “Surprisingly, there’s a lot of research done on what they can and can’t eat.”

The turtles are a relatively new addition to Finnegan Farms near Redwater, which is also home to the Alberta Petting Zoo. The zoo, which is largely run by Finnegan’s daughters, travels around the province for events such as KDays.

“Years ago I lived in the city and one of my kids wanted a horse. You know, when they’re little and you say, ‘Yeah, yeah, when you’re 12 you can have a horse,'” Finnegan recalled. “Hell, the girl got a paper route and I didn’t realize she was saving the paper route money for the horse that I told her she could have when she was 12.”

As her five children grew older and more horses arrived, the family started the petting zoo to help pay for hay for the winter. They moved to a 200-acre farm and expanded their farm to include rabbits, a few ostriches, chickens, turkeys, donkeys, miniature cows, ponies, sheep, and goats.

And then, about two years ago, the turtles.

“It also allows me to stay home,” said Finnegan, who is also a foster parent. “And it’s great for the kids because they’re in a place where they can be with animals. You know, animals (are) therapy, right?”

Tracy Finnegan speaks with CTV News Edmonton on July 8, 2024, at her farm near Redwater, Alta. (Sean McClune/CTV News Edmonton)

In the summer, Fred, Daphne, Velma and Kokanee spend their days outside, feeding on the grass and leaves that are already there, and eating a daily ‘turtle salad’ prepared by Finnegan.

At night they are led indoors by their caretaker. They cannot stay in environments cooler than 19 C.

Kokanee, a cherry-faced red-footed tortoise, cannot eat as much protein and sugar as his housemates, who eat leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, and proteins such as mealworms, cooked chicken, shrimp, and eggs.

Although their diet is expensive in the summer, it becomes even more expensive in the winter, when Finnegan must buy lettuce to supplement the weeds she dries beforehand.

“It doesn’t actually have a lot of the nutrients that these guys really need, so I’ll replace it with lettuce, maybe a mix of one part weed and one part lettuce, just to keep us going,” she said.

She has already started stockpiling dried weeds for the colder months. But after underestimating how much she would need last year, Finnegan has been telling everyone who knows her weeds that are safe for turtles and have not been exposed to any chemicals of any kind that may come into contact with her.

So many people have signed up that the turtle keeper is having a hard time keeping up.

“It was amazing and at the same time a nightmare making sure I didn’t miss anyone,” she told CTV News Edmonton.

But she wants to play it safe.

“I’d rather have too much than too little.”

Regarding the turtles’ appetite, she said: “They’re like pigs. They just eat constantly if they can.”

With files from Matt Woodman and Sean McClune of CTV News Edmonton