On the Beating Death of a Snapping Turtle

* * Our neighbor beat a snapping turtle to death. The life taken stays with me.

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. *

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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. *

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Turtle watercolor courtesy of eiudragon Snapping Turtle Eating Fish watercolor courtesy of angelic

About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is a writer and editor, perhaps due to an English professor's scathing denunciation of her writing as "curious verbiage." She's the author of "Free Range Learning," a handbook of natural learning and "Tending," a poetry collection. (lauragraceweldon.com) She's working on her next book, "Subversive Cooking" (subversivecooking.com). She lives on Bit of Earth Farm where she is a barely useful farm wench. Although she has deadlines to meet she often wanders from the computer to preach hope, snort with laughter, cook subversively, talk to chickens and cows, discuss life’s deeper meaning with her surprisingly tolerant offspring, sing to bees, hide in books, walk dogs, concoct tinctures, watch foreign films, and make messy art.
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8 Responses to On the Beating Death of a Snapping Turtle

  1. Beth says:

    I think it’s sad when any one unthinkingly harms or kills an animal they percieve as dangerous. No one gives any thought to the purpose or usefulness of that creature in its own habitat, they only see it trespassing on their own.
    Like you I have made it a habit, as did my mother and hers before, to educate my children about all creatures, bugs and etc… so they are not afraid. Nurture their curiosity and they become lifelong nurturers.

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  3. minna says:

    People who purposely kill animals are in danger of someday purposely killing humans. I went to town the other day and saw 6 turtles on the road trying to get to the other side. On my way home 4 of the six had been run over. Two on the side of the road and two in the middle of the tire tracks in the lane. So the drivers had to purposely swerve to hit them. Five of these were box turtles & one was a painted turtle. What a shame. I’m thinking the drivers were neglected by their parents in their “love all of God’s creatures” education.

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    • Laura Weldon says:

      I share your concerns Minna.

      Many times we have stopped, when it’s safe, to usher creatures off the road. Large turtles can be moved (or encouraged to move along) with a plastic snow shovel you might have in your trunk. It’s important to move turtles in the direction they are going as they may be heading to a body of water or nesting ground.

      We also have shoved roadkill to the side, as we’ve seen large birds of prey killed as they attempt to feed.

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  4. Brady says:

    Thanks for this. I found your post very sad and yet heartening too. Snappers aren’t sweet animals and they aren’t going to show up on cuteoverload.com anytime soon but I’m glad that they are cared for.

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    • Laura Weldon says:

      You’ve honed in on a major point Brady. Our society values cuteness without seeing the intrinsic ways that creatures fit into the ecosystem. Of course cuteness has its perils as well.

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  5. Pingback: The Youngest Have The Oldest Way Of Knowing « Laura Grace Weldon

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