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Bucks, Montco pupils push Pa. to protect turtles

The Eastern box turtle inched closer to becoming Pennsylvania's official state reptile Tuesday with renewed help from student lobbyists.

The Eastern box turtle inched closer to becoming Pennsylvania's official state reptile Tuesday with renewed help from student lobbyists.

"It was pretty cool that it actually might be the state reptile," said Timmy McHugh, 10. He was among fifth graders from two area schools who traveled to Harrisburg on Tuesday to watch a Senate panel give preliminary approval to the measure.

The legislation passed in the House in May 2009 after Timmy and other fourth-grade pupils from Glenside Elementary School pushed for the idea to protect the turtles.

Since then, fifth graders from Afton Elementary School in Yardley have joined the effort. On Tuesday, 20 Afton children, joined by 17 adults, also went to watch the legislative process.

Two Afton pupils spoke to the Senate committee considering the legislation, and teacher Lois Torok described the mood in the room after those remarks as electric.

"It was like, 'We the people, we the kiddos,' " she said. "It was such a positive thing to show these kids how government works."

The idea for the legislation came from the Glenside pupils, who are now in the fifth grade at the Elkins Park school. They wanted to push for it after hearing a presentation about the turtle from Kathy Lacey, a science teacher in the Cheltenham School District.

"My dream has always been to get the Eastern box turtle named the state reptile. Numbers are dwindling so much that if it's not recognized, it'll disappear," said Lacey, who accompanied five Elkins Park students to Harrisburg on Tuesday.

Their efforts were boosted during the last year by the Afton children, who circulated petitions, drew turtle pictures, and crafted reports. Two of those were heard Tuesday by a Senate committee, which passed the measure and sent it to the floor.

Marshall Nixon, 10, wearing a turtle-patterned tie, told the committee about the ecological threats to the turtle. "It's the most colorful turtle in the world," he said. "Someone has to save it."

His classmate Connor Doyle described the turtles' historical significance to the Leni-Lenape tribe in Bucks County. "I told them it was a symbol of peace and harmony," he said. "I think what we're doing, it will definitely help the creature."

The bill, whose final Senate approval has not been scheduled, would make Pennsylvania the 26th state to name an official reptile and the third, joining North Carolina and Tennessee, to take the Eastern box turtle as its own.

Torok and Lacey said their students would continue to lobby until the bill was passed.

"We're going to work together as this proceeds," Lacey said. "We've got the power of two schools, two counties, now, and this is going to work."