Building Good Karma: The Buddhist Ceremony of Releasing Turtles
Lorri Cramer has been building good turtle karma for a long time. It started the day her nephew came running to her with a box turtle that had a cracked shell and broken legs.
"He found two boys in the woods throwing it back and forth like a ball," she says. "He handed it to me and said, 'Can you fix it?'"
Cramer's only qualification for the task was that she loved animals. "I wasn't going to say, 'No, I'm not going to try.' But I didn't really think I could do anything with it," she says.
She brought the turtle back to her apartment in New York City and named it Lavinia — only finding out much later that it was male, because you can't determine a turtle's sex until it's mature.
In those days, she had to call veterinarians all around the country to find the few who knew about turtles. But little by little, she put together the information she needed to heal and care for him. (Today, there are plenty of licensed rehabilitators who have been trained to care for turtles and other wild animals. Even for people who are well-intentioned, it is illegal to take wildlife into your home. If you find injured wildlife, contact a local licensed rehabilitator.)
The Start of Something Bigger
Lavinia is still with Cramer, 33 years later — and he was the start of something much bigger. Since then, she has rehabilitated at least 1,000 turtles and tortoises for the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society. These reptiles end up in rescue in different ways. Some are pets who are given up, some are injured wild animals, and some are exotic species illegally released into an environment they can't survive in.
Over the years, there was one recurring problem of the last type that kept nagging at her. She'd get calls about whole groups of turtles in inappropriate places, like freshwater red-eared sliders found in the surf in Rockaway Beach.
"They'd all come in a cluster," Cramer says. She eventually discovered that they were being released as part of fangsheng, a Chinese Buddhist religious practice. She explains, "They had a very important ceremony called the Release Life ceremony, based on the premise that by going to the store and buying live animals and releasing them, you were giving them their life back, and that brought you good karma."
The problem was that translating this ceremony from China to New York City didn't work out well for turtles, which were often used for the symbolism of their long lives.
"When it started in China, it was people coming into the village to buy the turtle or the bird that had just been taken from someplace in the countryside," she says. "That was compassionate because they were releasing the animals back to the right environment." In contrast, releasing non-native species in New York City meant either death for the animals or, if they were lucky enough to be rescued, a lot of work for their rehabilitators.
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.
So for more than a decade, his team has been protecting the nests with wire cages and releasing the babies when they hatch. This happens almost daily in the fall, so a date was arranged for the Buddhists to visit the site. "I did a little program and told them about terrapins. Then we went out along the trail to some sites where I had hatchlings," Burke says. "We released them, they performed a prayer service over them, and it was very nice."
During the last release, they began including birds, which Cramer says will allow ceremonies to happen more often because birds heal more quickly and don't hibernate. "So, during the winter and fall, birds will be released, and then during the summer, turtles will be released," she says.
Expanding the Project
People from a few other temples attended the last couple of ceremonies, sparking hope that the practice will spread to more temples. Says Cramer, "Eventually, what Benkong dreams of is that each Buddhist temple will adopt a wildlife center or wildlife rehabilitator and help support them, and the wildlife rehabilitator would offer them chances to say the blessing and to do the release ceremony."