The Calming Hope of Snapping Turtles
Posted on April 27, 2020
The first time I had a face-to-face encounter with a common snapping turtle was about twenty years ago. I had seen them in swamps and ponds for years, but nothing up close and personal. I was staying with friends for a time. Their home was out in the country in Ohio. They lived with a beautiful, sweet and good-natured female black Labrador retriever named Darby, and a one-eyed killer black and white shorthaired female cat, named appropriately enough, One-Eyed Killer Kitty.
I was home by myself that spring morning with just the cat and the dog, when I was awoken by the most terrific barking from Darby. I jumped out of bed trying to put on my bathrobe and sleepers while simultaneously trying to race to where I heard Darby. Somehow, she had gotten out of the garage door. (My friends used to leave the garage door partly open a couple of inches for the cat to roam whenever she felt like it.) Darby was jumping and barking at something on the front lawn; I mean jumping straight up in the air about 4 feet high. I ran out the front door to where she was trying to attack something, when I saw it hissing up at the dog.
Now I had seen snapping turtles, and knew of their reputation from my maternal grandfather, Carl, who loved to hunt anything (I’m a vegetarian for this and many other reasons). The one thing he always told me was if you came across a “snapper” while hissing, and you didn’t have a 12 gauge (also why I hate guns) with you, run the other way, no need to slink off, but run to a safe distance.
It was definitely a “Snapper.” Their jaws are some of the most powerful in the animal kingdom per square centimeter of force, so the nickname is more than adequate. I tried to grab Darby’s collar to pull her back, but she was about 75 pounds of muscle, and I am not much more than that so I quickly looked for something else to try to distract, deter or dislodge our dinosaur-era guest. And then I remembered my grandfather having told me that if you ever came in contact with a snapper, try to find a stick. I looked around and found a roughly 3-foot-long branch from a tree limb Darby had been playing with for a week. (It was all that was left from a part of a large tree branch Darby had gotten for my then not as yet husband as a present one night at 3 a.m., in the woods behind the house, where she had run away to get just for him, because it had to be just right apparently – it’s another blog post story yet to come).
Maybe this time of our uncertainty really is the time for more reflection of what happens every day around us, which we never make time enough to notice in our busy lives.
I couldn’t get Darby to leave this crazy scene, and I couldn’t and wouldn’t try to pick the turtle up, because it was a full-sized snapper about 14-16 inches across. So, I picked up the “limb” like my grandfather had once told me to do, put both of my hands on the very outside of each end of the limb, and jammed it into the face of the snapper, with trembling hands and closed eyes. And the snapper did what only a snapper will do. It clamped onto the center of that limb with all the down force it had. And wouldn’t let go; and hadn’t crushed into little pieces either to my immense relief.
I picked the darn thing up, with the limb and all. Darby was now barking at it and me for the insult of messing up her protection-detail. I started down the long front lawn of the house toward the country road that faced the front door, about 75 yards away. I was shaking, and getting winded really fast, that thing wasn’t light you know, my robe and nightgown flapping, Darby was growling and barking on my heels all the way down, and that snapper turtle still hissing through its mouth all the while still firmly locked onto that tree limb. I finally got to the other side of the road, where there was a culvert ditch and a large swampy wooded area, and flung the snapper into the undergrowth, limb and all.
Darby seemed quite satisfied by the turn of events at that point, shook out her coat, let out one last deep breath, and happily strode back up the front yard towards to house. I just walked back to the front lawn from the other side of the road about 10 feet, and collapsed on the green lawn in a heap of nightwear, soggy slippers and trembling appendages.
That snapping turtle was probably a female, had just come from that swampy area across the road to lay her clutch of eggs for the spring in the front yard. That’s what snapping turtles do, lay eggs on dry areas, usually on elevated ground to keep the clutches safe from water, even though that is where the little hatchlings will go to find safety once they have left their nesting sites.
The Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpintena) has an enormous range. It can be found from eastern Canada south through most of the central and eastern United States and down through Mexico into Central America. Snapping turtles will take up residence in almost any body of freshwater including ponds, lakes, slow moving rivers, and even in artificial water features. Some populations of snapping turtles also can be found in brackish water including salt marshes. Common snapping turtles typically grow 8-14 inches, rarely to 19 inches. They can weigh 10 to 75 pounds. Snapping turtles can live over 40 years. Snapping turtles breed from April-November. They typically lay up to 80 eggs and will venture far from the water to lay their eggs in a safe, dry place. Eggs hatch in nine to 18 weeks, depending on the weather.
Staying home, practicing physical distancing these last weeks from work, I’ve wondering about the snappers we have at our cottage in the north. Wondering if they are getting ready to look for new spots for nests; looking for their next meals (they eat everything that long neck and those strong jaws can clamp onto); and perhaps wondering where all the humans who like to trap, catch or just plain shoot them for fun are these days? It must be really quiet on the lake and ponds in the area there. I really don’t like to see them when we are there, but you can’t help it because they are everywhere in that area.
The more we get used to our new normal during this pandemic, the more I have been thinking back to that encounter on my friend’s homestead. And wondering how wildlife in general and the snapper population in particular are handling this, with less human foot traffic, hence less oil and gas pollution in their waterways from two-stroke boat motors, to just not hearing anything else but the natural world around them?
And during all this current anxiety and uncertainty, I have started to feel there is a kind of calming hope to thinking about the “Snappers.” They just go about their eons of evolutionary patterns; coming ashore to dig their nesting hole each spring, to lay their eggs and move back to the water for next year’s cycle to repeat.
Maybe this time of our uncertainty really is the time for more reflection of what happens every day around us, which we never make time enough to notice in our busy lives. Take a little more time to notice our surroundings when you are going to walk your dog, or just going for a walk to clear your head from all the news and worry. We really are all in this together, aren’t we? Even if that does mean we are in this together with a snapper here or there. Personally, I much prefer a nice, small, quiet and safe painted turtle. They just panic when they see us coming. No hissing required. But even a bit of hissing seems not so bad anymore.