Building Good Karma: The Buddhist Ceremony of Releasing Turtles

a Buddhist group gathers to release the turtles
Photo by Dr. Russell Burke
Before the turtle release, the head of the Buddhist temple says a few words about the Compassionate Release Life ceremony and why it's important.

Cramer did what she could. "For many years, in the spring of every year, I would write to all the temples in Chinatown that were in the phone book and later that I could find online, and I would beg them not to release the animals because they didn't belong here," she says. Unfortunately, she never got an answer.

Hope for the Turtles

Then, about three years ago, she got a call from Benkong Shi, a monk at Grace Gratitude Buddhist Temple in Chinatown. He was just as upset as she was at what the ceremony had become. "He told me stories about releasing doves, and the next day all the doves were dead on the ground because the animals in the live markets [in Chinatown] are not fed," she says. "People were doing it for the best of reasons, but because the world has changed and the animals that were being bought were no longer from the area [they were released into], it was no longer compassionate here in the U.S. like it was supposed to be."

Benkong wanted to find a way to change the ceremony, and the big difference from Cramer's lone letter-writing campaign was that he was coming at the problem from the inside. Although originally from New Jersey, he had lived in China as a teenager and was a respected part of the New York Chinese Buddhist community. "The biggest problem was that I was an outsider," Cramer says. "You can't go into anyone's community and start telling them what to do." Also, it helped that Benkong spoke fluent Chinese. "They told me the reason no one had gotten back to me was that all the letters were in English," Cramer explains.

But together, they were the perfect combination. The ceremony needed animals to release, and a rehabber like Cramer had animals that needed to go back into their natural environment.

A New Beginning

The new ceremony, renamed Compassionate Release Life, has slowly started to grow. They've done about a half dozen releases, sometimes involving more than just rehabbed turtles. One ceremony involved baby diamondback terrapins, part of a project led by Dr. Russell Burke of Hofstra University. When he started studying these turtles about 15 years ago, he discovered that the predation rate for the eggs at his research site in Jamaica Bay was extraordinarily high. "Some years, nearly every nest that went into the ground was eaten by raccoons, usually in a day or two of being laid," he says.

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