by Andrea Lani
One morning I held a snapping turtle in my hands. Her shell was the size of a dinner plate, oblong and slick with a coating of greenish-black algae. Although she wasn’t the biggest turtle I had seen over the previous few days, her smooth carapace indicated she was an old one, lacking the ridges and keels that corrugate younger turtles’ upper shells.
I gripped the edge of her shell, at eight and four if she were a clock, with the tips of my fingers. She was not heavy, no more so than a couple of dictionaries, but she was angry. She snaked her furrowed neck out and arched it back, glaring at me from small dark eyes. Her hind legs paddled beneath my forearms, each one fringed with four sickle-shaped claws. I began to lose my nerve.
I’d only ever picked up one snapping turtle before, a tiny one, smaller than my hand. Before that, I once stopped for an old grandmother snapper who glared at me with her beady eyes, opened her beak, and hissed. I wished her the best of luck in crossing the road and scurried back to my car.
The snapping turtle is built for defense; everything about its physique says “armor”—from thick skin pebbled with tubercles, to a ridged and serrated shell and saw-toothed tail. But unlike its more advanced cousins, which can withdraw their appendages fully into their shells, the snapping turtle, a creature that has changed little over the last 100 million years, does not have a full plastron, or lower shell, but merely a cross-shaped bony structure. This arrangement allows for greater mobility, but also makes the beast more vulnerable. To compensate for an inadequate hidey-hole, the snapper has developed an attitude. When cornered on land, a snapping turtle will open its menacing, beaked jaws, hiss, and lunge its thick neck, which stretches to almost the length of its body. My field guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Maine describes the snapping turtle’s personality on land as “pugnacious.”
T.H. White, in The Goshawk, writes of the bird he is attempting to train: “Gos had on the whole a pessimistic and apprehensive expression, a characteristic of most predatory creatures. We are pugnacious through our inferiority complexes. Even the pike’s ironic mouth has a hint of depression in it.” I doubt my turtle that morning had an inferiority complex. Inasmuch as they consider other creatures at all, I imagine the snapping turtle sorts them into three categories: food, threat, and, occasionally, mate. And yet that turtle, and all the others I’d seen on recent mornings, had much to be pessimistic and apprehensive about.
It was early June, the time of year that female common snapping turtles here in Maine emerge from their watery resting spots in marshes, ponds, and streams and seek out soft sand or soil for laying their eggs. Snapping turtles often return to the same area to nest each year, traveling from several hundred yards to up to two or more miles to reach a suitable site. With her hind legs, the turtle digs a depression about seven inches deep into which she deposits twenty to forty eggs, each slightly smaller than a pingpong ball. She scrapes a thin layer of soil over each egg and, after she finishes laying, smooths more dirt over the hole in an effort to erase any sign of her presence. She then returns to water, maternal duties complete.
The eggs incubate in the soil over the next three to four months, if they escape raids by raccoons, mink, foxes, skunks, and other predators, a fate that can befall up to ninety-four percent of nests. In late summer or early fall, those that survive emerge from the nest make their way to the nearest body of water, where they will continue to face danger in the form of predators and freezing weather until they are three inches long, at around three or four years of age. So precarious is the existence of a snapping turtle egg and hatchling that the chance of a female surviving to breeding age is less than one percent.
However, once a snapping turtle reaches maturity, it faces few natural predators—otters may eviscerate turtles hibernating underwater, but few animals will face off these feisty testudines when they have all their faculties—and thus can live a long time. The female reaches sexual maturity when her carapace grows to nearly eight inches in length. This takes about seven years in the south and up to twenty years here on the northern fringe of their range. Common snapping turtles are thought to live around 50 years, and possibly up to 100 or 200. A platter-sized turtle could be as old as I am, if not older, and still well in her breeding years. The snapping turtles’ long lifespans and low adult mortality ensures their ability to maintain stable populations, despite high egg and juvenile mortality.
Yet there is one factor that today affects snapping turtle survival that they did not have to face for the first 100 million years of their existence: the car. Snapping turtles historically laid their eggs in old muskrat and beaver lodges, but human activities have created more attractive nesting sites in gravel pits, dams, and roadsides. Every spring, I see at least one snapping turtle dead on the side of the road, its shell crushed by tires. I can’t help but assume that the driver ran it over deliberately; a lugubrious turtle is unlikely to dart in front of the car, like a squirrel, and the shattered corpses almost always lie on the shoulder, as if drivers swerve off the pavement to hit them.
Before I picked up the turtle that morning, I’d seen three snapping turtles attempting road crossings over the previous two days. The day before, on my way to work, I came across two different turtles partway across the road. Both times I stopped my car, got out, and stood behind the turtle, trying to shoo it to the edge of the road. At first, each turtle crouched down and withdrew her leathery neck, but when I clapped my hands and stomped my feet, she picked up her turtle’s pace and skittered—inasmuch as such a ponderous creature can skitter—the rest of the way across the road.
Rescuing a saucer-sized painted turtle exhilarates me, but my encounters with snappers that morning left me anxious. Was it the prehistoric appearance of these beasts that unsettled me? While a painted turtle is beautiful, with a salmon-colored plastron and delicate red and yellow designs on its limbs and shell, snapping turtles look like the dinosaurs its ancestors shared the earth with, and trigger an instinctual—or Jurassic Park-fueled—dread. Or perhaps it was my fear that the animal would not make it across the road on the return trip that raised my heart rate.
At work, I posted to Facebook a plea to my friends to drive slowly and stop to escort turtles across the road. I acknowledged that I was not brave enough to pick a snapper up myself. One friend remarked, “The only dangerous part of them is their front end, so lifting them up by their sides or by the back of their shell should be fine.” I found videos online that demonstrated how to move a snapping turtle across the road by lifting the beast by the back end of its shell. But I get jumpy picking up any kind of animal, even those that don’t have the potential to inflict serious injury with a vice-grips beak. While several friends agreed that herding was the prudent course of action and that snapping turtles became “very very angry” when picked up, another reiterated what the first had said, “You can hold them by the other end. Even if angry, it beats them getting squished.” This was a sweet, gentle woman, slim as a sapling with arms slender enough to be snapped in half by the turtle’s jaws. Next to her, I’m a strapping farm gal. If she picks up snapping turtles, I thought, I should be ashamed not to.
When I told my family about my turtle rescues and subsequent Facebook exchange over dinner that night, my husband agreed that he wouldn’t care to pick up a snapping turtle, either. “It’s the claws at the back that I’d worry about,” he said. I hadn’t thought of the claws, but I had considered the danger of holding the hind end of a turtle in front of me when it decided to let loose its stream of pee, which smaller turtles I’d picked up had done.
The next morning, driving my oldest son to his school bus, I came to the place where our road crosses a small river and saw a snapper nosing into the road. I slowed to a crawl, but a car pulled up behind me and I couldn’t stop. With my car looming nearby, the turtle turned and made her way back down the bank and I drove on. “Why,” I wondered out loud, “doesn’t she just swim under the bridge?”
I didn’t see that turtle on the road on my return trip, nor a half-hour later when, after putting my other two kids on their bus, I drove by again on my way to work. Either she made it across safely or took my advice and swam under the bridge. I wondered how long it would take, given their long life spans and slow rate of reproduction, for natural selection to favor snapping turtles who avoided roads during their egg-laying pilgrimages. Probably too long.
A couple miles later, I came across another turtle lumbering into my lane. I stopped my car and jumped out, planning to herd her across like I had the two on the previous day, but she would have none of it. Instead of skittering across, she turned toward me, opened her mouth and hissed.
She was smaller than the turtles I’d seen in the day before, and while the others appeared dry, with rough, warty olive-green skin and keeled, taupe-colored shells, this one looked as if she’d just emerged from the primordial ooze, her smooth carapace covered in dark, shiny algae.
While the road wasn’t busy, we were in a blind spot, with a rise in both directions, and I was running late. I couldn’t face off this turtle forever. I thought of my friend, her willowy arms wrestling a giant turtle and I reached out and grasped the hind end of the shell. It was wet and and slippery. The turtle snaked her long neck up and back over her shell, toward me, and opened her mouth wide.
I snatched my hands back and reassessed the situation. My car idling in the middle of the road. This prehistoric beast directly in front of it. Blind spots in both directions. I grasped the turtle’s shell again, lifted her up and hurried across the road. She kept her neck arched back, beaked mouth wide open. The flesh inside was a pale greenish-white, like the underside of a fish. She exuded a terrible, deep, anaerobic odor, like the inside of a septic tank or the bottom of a swamp. I held my breath.
Halfway across the road I remembered what my husband said about the hind claws. I looked down at the pebbled flesh of her legs, the four white sickles that adorned each foot paddling below my hands. Fortunately her legs could not reach my arms. As I neared the shoulder, the inevitable stream of pee began to flow from her back end. I crouched down and flung the turtle the last two feet, into the grass at the edge of the road. She rolled as she landed, settling with her yellowish, cross-shaped plastron up. Before I could think how to flip her right side up, she stretched out her fleshy legs and righted herself. I turned and scurried back to my car, without waiting to see her lumber off into the woods, casting a last pugnacious glance over her shoulder at me.
Months later, long after the snapping turtles had finished breeding and laying eggs, I was once again taking my son to the bus when I came across another snapping turtle at the four-way intersection at the end of our road. It appeared silhouetted against the horizon as it lumbered across a high point, where a crosswalk would be if we lived in the city. I skirted my car around behind the turtle and pulled in to my usual bus-waiting spot alongside a row of cedar trees. There is a murky pond downhill from these trees that looks like snapping turtle heaven. But this turtle was ambling away from the pool. Because it was not egg-laying time, I had no way of knowing whether the turtle was a male or female. The only visible difference between the sexes is the distance from the cloaca—the single opening used for both excretion and reproduction—to the tip of the plastron, but I was not about to get close enough to take that measurement. In fact, still shaken from my close encounter with the turtle the previous spring, I declined to pick up the turtle, even though it was smaller than the others had been, and instead herded it the rest of the way across the road.
That evening I came home from work on the cross road and saw, a few dozen yards from the intersection, the crushed body of a snapping turtle the same size as the one I had helped across the road in the morning. It lay diagonally across the center line, ridged tail splayed out, pointed toward the spot where I had left it, head stretched in the opposite direction. I had not thought that morning to consider where the turtle was headed. If I had, I might have assumed it was going to Joy’s Pond, half a mile down the road, on the same side that I had left the turtle on. It’s a pleasant pond, with cattail shallows along the road and a twenty-two acre expanse of clear blue water stretching toward the undeveloped opposite shore. But the turtle appeared to have other ideas, aiming instead for a red maple swamp closer by but across the road.
Every day over the next week or so, until the last scraps of turtle were taken away by scavengers, whenever I passed that spot, I saw in the turtle’s carcass a rebuke. I had failed it, when I thought I’d saved it. Or I had saved its life, only to gain it a few minutes or hours before it succumbed to fate. I had a vague recollection of a rule of the universe—something, perhaps, from Eastern religion—that if you saved a life you became responsible for it. I searched for this proverb online, hoping for guidance or solace, and found instead that it has no spiritual roots and is actually a trope used in action-adventure movies, often as a way to introduce a native side-kick to the white hero. Not only had I failed to save the turtle, but at least part of my emotional response to the turtle’s death was based on a racially problematic pseudo-philosophy spoon-fed to me by Hollywood.
Another part of my emotional response came from my feeling tender at the time, having just found out my son’s best friend had been diagnosed with cancer. All week, I had alternated between weepy and angry that a sweet fourteen-year-old kid had been afflicted with cancer when truly terrible people walk around the world in perfect health. The crushed turtle was one more reminder of the impermanence and unfairness of life, how there are no guarantees and nothing can be taken for granted, and that the universe can be a cruel place.
My son’s best friend completed his cancer treatments over the winter, coming out the other end thin as a waif but in good health. He and my son, meanwhile grew apart, attending different high schools, finding new friends and interests. Or perhaps it’s just the way of teenagers; now they spend their time texting each other where once they played army guys, mailed coded messages, jammed together on their guitars.
June is coming and I face turtle season with dread. I saw the first crushed shell in mid-May—a small painted turtle at a low spot on our road, a place where I see dead turtles every spring. How, I wonder, can there be hope for an ancient creature whose top speed is four miles per hour when our own species is hell-bent on pavement and power and speed? What good does it do for me to pick a turtle up or escort it across the road when it will likely get crushed on its return trip or next spring or the next, while meanwhile each of the eggs it laid before dying has less than a one percent chance of surviving to reproduce?
As a mother, the hardest thing in the world is for me to acknowledge that there is no guarantee that turtles, or any wild thing, will outlive humans’ depredations, that there will be a wild world for my children to grow up in, that any of us will survive until old age or to next year or tomorrow. But I know it is true. I also know that it does very little good for me to save a handful of turtles each spring. But still, come June, when I see a prehistoric creature crossing the road, I will stop my car, place my hands at eight and four, and carry the pugnacious beast across, to whatever fate awaits it on the other side.
Andrea Lani’s writing about family and the natural world has appeared in The Maine Review, Snowy Egret, and Saltfront, among other publications. She lives in Maine and can be found online at http://www.remainsofday.blogspot.com