Sunday, August 29, 2010

Close Encounter with a Snapping Turtle

I had seen real, live snapping turtles before, in zoos or shelters, but not in the middle of a lonely country road. As snappers go, he wasn't even that big, but he was still an awesome sight. Here he is, just as I saw him from the car, happily basking in the late afternoon sun smack in the center of the road in Greene County, New York (which is in the Catskill Mountains).

Conventional wisdom says one should get the turtle to move off the road in the direction it is facing. Reckoning that this was my opportunity to help, I pulled over and got out of the car. When the turtle saw me, he retracted his head just a bit but otherwise showed no fear and, more significantly, no signs of moving at all in any direction. Obviously my presence alone was not going to motivate this turtle to get off the road.

I diverted the few cars that drove by and continued taking pictures. The turtle seemed to be in good shape. I couldn't tell if the crud on the back of his shell was related to an old injury or not.

I could have spent a long time there, admiring and communing with the snapper. I haven't come upon turtles in the wild too often, especially ones that don't mind my being so close. It was a pretty thrilling moment.

Needing to get down to the business at hand, I looked around for a long stick. Not that I have had any experience with this sort of thing, but I do know that a snapping turtle's powerful jaws should not come anywhere near one's hands or feet. I thought if I prodded him from behind with a stick, he might be frightened and run away from it. That would take him off the road since that was the direction he was facing. But no, he lurched around trying to grab the stick. Thankfully, turtles on land are not very agile creatures. His turn was far less than the 180 degrees he probably intended. He made a hissing sound like my red eared sliders make when they're frightened. If I hadn't been familiar with that noise, it would have been intimidating, for sure! A few more attempts convinced me that I couldn't scare him into anything except attacking the stick. I was going to have to come up with a different approach.

After some experimental maneuvers, I had an idea. Using the stick, I prodded the turtle on the right side of his shell, causing him to lurch right and also forward a little. When I prodded from the left, he lurched left and forward. My idea was to zigzag him off the road. Indeed, after four or five goadings with the stick, he was decidedly closer to the side of the road. Progress!!

Next, he had an idea. He started leaning into the stick as I was positioning it under the side of his shell, to push it away, I suppose. Wondering how strong he was, I applied an equal amount of constant pressure. To my utter amazement, he started walking! We had struck upon a compromise, and he walked all the way to the side of the road. Whooppee!! I let him rest, and then we had another go at the leaning/walking method he seemed to prefer. Once he got into the grass, he headed for a nearby ditch without additional prodding. See?

I was happy to leave him in the little ditch. It was far enough from the road that he wouldn't be in danger. It was sunny enough that he could bask there without being tempted to return to the road. I could see from his wary stance and suspicious eyes that he wasn't going to get comfortable until I was gone.

All that remained was to advise him to stay off the roads, away from people, and to wish him a long life. I returned to the car feeling gratified to have helped and jubilant at the communication that had occurred between us.  So jubilant, in fact, that I drove more than five miles further before I realized that the only reason I saw this turtle in the first place was because I made a wrong turn at the start of my drive into town!

In closing, let me offer some links to additional information that might come in handy if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

1) If You See a Turtle in the Road, by The Humane Society of the United States, is a brief article that gives sound, practical instructions. It strongly advises against the temptation to take a turtle home, always a bad idea for the turtle and frequently illegal for the human.

2) Turtle Information and Conservations Tips, by The Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, has good advice on moving turtles off the road (scroll down to items #5 and 6). There are also detailed instructions on moving snapping turtles that are larger and more uncooperative than the one I came upon (item #10). This excellent article also covers what to do if you have a turtle nesting in your yard (item #8) or if you find a hatchling (item #9).

3) What To Do If You Find An Injured or Ill Turtle, by Anita Peddicord of The Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Association of Houston Texas, an invaluable article if you find a less than healthy turtle. This article says that a turtle with a hurt foot or damage to the outer area of his shell does not need assistance; minor injuries like these will heal without intervention. However, if the turtle has a large open wound, you need to do something. The article addresses questions about what to do for the turtle until you find a veterinarian or a wildlife rehabber who can care for it properly. Print this article; keep a copy in your car.  Seriously. I know for a fact that in the hands of a licensed wildlife rehabilitation expert, turtles can recover completely from very bad injuries and be returned to the wild where they belong. Turtle Rescue of Long Island Turtle, an organization I can personally vouch for, has done amazing things for severely injured snappers and box turtles.

Turtles are amazing creatures whose habitat we are destroying in all sorts of ways. Please make sure you know the right thing to do if you encounter a turtle in need of assistance. I plan to take my own advice. Writing this blog post has certainly filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge. Looking back, I'm surely thankful my snapper friend was healthy, not very big, and cooperative.

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sarala said...

Wonderful article. I have never seen a snapping turtle. They are surely a bit fearsome. I have two three toed box turtles and they are plenty for me.

Camano Girl said...

That is such an awesome story! Torts n Turts are so cool creatures. So prehistoric and just so cute! I have 5 RES and 4 RTs ( one MIA ) and 1 HT. I so love the shelled crew.
You are such a sweet and loving person to make sure that critter was safe.

Melissa Schmidt
Camano Island,WA

justlinda said...

Great story and wonderful pics. Thanks for sharing!

Joseph said...

Nice story. Once while traveling on a back road in Florida I came across a huge turle, not knowing the species of turtles I can't tell you what type it was. This huge turtle was in the middle of the road so I stopped my big tractor trailer right there and helped the turtle across the road because knowing how people drive in Florida I had to do something.

I made sure he was safe even though I was causing a traffic problem on a 2 lane road.

Joe Hood
Roseville, MI