Every spring we see snapping turtles near our pond. We’re glad to see them return. Perhaps their presence reassures us that our farm is bountiful and feeds them well. Or perhaps their yearly return is a ritual of sorts, acknowledging as rituals do that some things stay the same in a world where so much changes.
The turtles are quite noticeable as they move with prehistoric dignity through the grass. If we pass by they slide into the water. Sometimes we’ve had to move them (very carefully) out of the way of a tractor. Other times we’ve had to caution children or guests away from them.
They linger for at least a few weeks in early spring. Then the turtles, following timing triggered by their own reptilian wisdom, trek across neighboring property toward a large lake several thousand feet away.
But this time that turtle journey happened at the same time my neighbor went outside with his two children. He saw the turtle as a danger and decided it had to be eliminated for the safety of his children.
First he shot it. Somehow gunshots didn’t have the desired effort. Thankfully they also didn’t ricochet off the turtle’s shell, creating a much worse hazard. Then he got out a heavy implement and, slamming down over and over again, he beat the turtle to death.
I’m not condemning my neighbor. He did what he assumed a good father does.
But this is what I can’t stop thinking about. It seems to me there are pivotal moments in a child’s life when what we show them about the world stays with them. I mean more than the bloody sight of that turtle’s death, left to rot rather than killed for food. We can show them that nature is a part of us—-to experience with wonder, to treat with respect and to embrace as a unified whole. Or we can show them that nature is separate from us—-to use for our amusement, to treat with distain, to attempt to control.
I realized this when my first child was a toddler, barely walking. He encountered an insect and paused before lifting his little white shoe to stomp on it. I showed him instead that we could squat down near the insect to watch it but not touch it. In those few minutes he looked carefully for the creature’s eyes, remarked on its feet and clapped in joyous astonishment when it unfolded wings and suddenly lifted away. After that he kept a careful watch for insects. His questions (What does it like for snacks? Does it go home to bed when it’s dark? How does it talk to other bugs?) showed he was thinking about what it might feel like to be an insect. He learned that some sting and bite, some hustle away on many legs, some wriggle into the ground. He learned awe tinged with caution.
In my opinion that’s the moment my neighbor missed. He could have called his children to come look at the snapping turtle from a safe distance, his arm around the youngest, pointing out the its heavy shell and powerful jaws. He could have cautioned them to always tell an adult if they ever saw such a creature, and to never go anywhere near it. He was right. Snapping turtles can be dangerous. That’s why we teach our children to identify, avoid and respect those dangers. But we also need to weigh risk factors to put danger in perspective. A turtle crossing the yard offers good reason for caution. Again, in my opinion, there may be greater dangers facing children in my neighborhood. Cars passing by on our 55 mile per hour rural road. Guns in the home. Toxins released when garbage is burned in the backyard.
I’m sure we all have different opinions about what constitutes danger. Maybe the way we frame this says a lot about our worldview. I’m only mean to say, the life taken stays with me. *
Snapping Turtle Sidenotes My husband and I have both stopped at the side of the road to move snapping turtles out of the street. This is best done without hands or feet, just the encouragement of a window scraper. The turtles snap grumpily, then lumber off to a shady drainage ditch. We do this because we’ve repeatedly seen drivers intentionally speed up to hit these slow-moving creatures. We’ve also seen drivers do the same the vultures, hawks and crows—-nature’s blessed carrion eaters who clean up our roadsides when a carcass lies in sad repose after meeting with a car.
I tried to find out why turtles might be traveling on roadways far from ponds and streams. Looking up the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) led to me find out more than I expected.
These long-lived turtles are important to the eco-system. They eat plant and animal matter, often scavenging. Docile in the water, they’re more aggressive on land. Food scarcity, pollution and habitat destruction may be forcing them to travel overland more than before.
Center for Biological Diversity is concerned about a massive increase in hunting and exporting turtles. These creatures, so integral to healthy aquatic ecosystems, are being sold to Asian countries, primarily China. Consumption of turtle meat there has driven many native species of turtles to extinction.
Eight states—Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, and Tennessee— permit unlimited harvesting of all turtle sizes, using lethal hoopnets and box traps in public and private waters. These devices box traps also capture, maim, kill, and drown protected turtle species, non-target fish, mammals and birds.
In our state, the Department of Natural Resources doesn’t monitor health or population trends of wild turtle populations. *