Karen Buckley is a classically trained musician, an opera singer with a master's degree from Temple University.
But these days, instead of singing about heartbreak, treachery and other traditional tribulations of opera, Buckley mainly sings about a single subject - turtles.
And that would explain why this Middle Township resident performs under the name she does. Her professional title is the Turtlesinger.
She has a Turtlesinger mailbox, a Turtlesinger website - turtlesinger.org - and even a small Turtlesinger trailer she uses to get her Turtlesinger equipment around to her Turtlesinger appearances.
She has taken her act to more than 700 appearances in five states so far, and sung her turtle songs - all original - as far away as Cape Cod, Mass. And that gear the Turtlesinger has to haul with her always includes actual turtles.
She and her husband, Charlie Buckley - also known as the Turtletoter - treat four turtles as part of their family. Sometimes, they even share a bedroom with the shelled pets when the Buckleys get overnight guests at their bayfront home. They've learned over the years that for some reason, most visitors don't want to sleep in the same room with a collection of live turtles, including a 20-pound snapping turtle named Spike.
Those family turtles are always part of the Turtlesinger performance package, riding along to Karen's gigs - at schools, festivals, libraries, birthday parties and more places where crowds gather - to be shown off and told about. But because of wildlife regulations, they can't be petted, even by the sort of people who would want to pet a 28-pound, red-footed tortoise named Big Black Bart.
The Turtlesinger traces her fascination with the animals to a visit years ago with a brother in Virginia. At one point, her brother stopped his car to help a turtle cross a road safely, and even though Karen never even saw that turtle, she says she was "bitten by the turtle bug." When she got home, which was then in New York, she got her first pet turtle, and she started volunteering and took turtle training at the Bronx Zoo's reptile house.
"Before that," she says, "I was really into cats."
After she moved to South Jersey, outside Stone Harbor, she also worked at the Cape May County Zoo. Then in 2000, she decided to combine her passion for turtles with her training in music by singing turtle songs. But in another shocking development, she could find very few songs in which turtles played leading roles.
"So I wrote my own songs," she says, which also frees her from dealing with copyrights and other complications in the swamps of the music world.
She has two Turtlesinger CDs, called "Turtle Bug" and "Different." The latter record has 13 songs that touch somehow on the topic of turtles, including "Snapping Turtles," "Turtle Names," "Pop A Balloon," "Spot (the Spotted Turtle)" and "Reptile Keeper's Blues."
Here's a sample of the lyrics to "Snapping Turtles," in which the Turtlesinger tries to drum up a bit of human sympathy for a critter with a nasty reputation - at least among many other people.
"Most snapping turtles stay out of sight
Only when threatened will they stand and fight
And here's one thing that I know to be true:
If you won't bother a snapper, he won't bother you."
And the Turtlesinger has fans. At the Sara the Turtle Festival, scheduled this year for Thursday night in Sea Isle City - where Sara the Turtle is the town mascot - the Turtlesinger is one of the prime draws.
Trish Jackson, of Sea Isle's tourism office, says the festival is designed to promote an environmental message by helping kids understand why they should care about turtles. To do that, the town brings in people from the Wetlands Institute and the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, plus face-painters, strolling entertainers and more.
"She is the biggest act, the Turtlesinger show," Jackson says. "We had heard about her for a while, then one year we just decided to hire her. And we'll definitely have her back every year."
As a musician, Karen Buckley also has fans at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Lower Township's Villas section. She's the church's organist, and the Rev. Leah Lavelle calls her a "fantastic musician with a wonderful voice. ... She has really made a big difference in our services" in the four or so years since she was hired, the pastor adds.
And she was definitely not hired as the Turtlesinger - "We didn't even know what the Turtlesinger was," Lavelle said. "But we were curious about what a Turtlesinger did."
Still, once the organist became part of the services, the church came to see how her alter ego could work around the altar too.
"They bring the turtles quite often," the pastor said, including to Fill the Pews Day, where the turtles were the prime draw - "When you bring out this live turtle, everyone pays attention."
The turtles are even part of major holidays at their church.
"On Easter Sunday, Bart always shows up with bunny ears and a bunny tail," says Lavelle, adding generally, that bunny outfit then gets replaced with a halo.
It's the same halo Bart - the biggest of the Turtlesinger turtles - wears in the live-turtle nativity scene at Christmas. Rocky, the smallest of the four family turtles, naturally plays the baby Jesus.
"If we need a turtle, they bring a turtle," says the pastor, who adds this Sunday, her congregation will get a rare treat - a church visit from Spike, the snapping turtle.
The pastor has learned to make turtle traits part of her message when they visit. "Their shells protect turtles like God protects us," she says. "And turtles move slowly and steadily - it's good to make sure of where you're going before you race off and do the wrong thing."
The turtles also helped serve a higher purpose in Hurricane Sandy, when the Buckleys had to evacuate their home by the bay - and, to be safe, took their pet turtles to a local shelter with them.
"They were a nice distraction," the Turtlesinger says, especially for kids stuck at the shelter. She adds she's a believer in "turtle therapy - like animal therapy."
The Turtlesinger and her Turtletoter - whose job duties include being "roadie, soundman and backup singer" - also believe strongly in trying to help their namesake creatures. That includes the Cape May County Benefit Motorcycle Poker Run for the Turtles, which the Buckleys, who enjoy riding a motorcycle themselves, have been organizing for 11 years.
The charity event - set for June 23 - is a benefit for the Turtlesinger's education programs, and a way of spreading the message that drivers of all kinds of vehicles need to watch out for turtles on local roads.
"We've seen more dead turtles on the road this year than live ones," the Turtlesinger says - sadly, of course.
For more details on the Turtlesinger's Motorcycle Poker Run for the Turtles, plus a full schedule of upcoming performances and booking information, call the Turtlesinger hotline at 609-553-5353 or see turtlesinger.org
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