It was morning on the 12th of May. I received a call from Animal Keepers, Autumn and Sarah about a snapping turtle seen near the entrance to the bear compound. When I arrived on the scene the snapper had entered a small swamp between the compound and the open water of the Wetlands and was heading towards the water.
The turtle had probably been out laying eggs and was now headed back to the safety and security of its much preferred aquatic habitat. Snappers can be very aggressive on land, downright ornery, probably due to the vulnerability of their situation, being out of their element.
In anticipation of the turtle having to cross the pavement which separates the swamp from the water and passes the Main Wetlands Overlook in Explore the Wild, a main thoroughfare for visiting school groups between the Black Bear Exhibit and the rest of Explore the Wild, I went over to intercept the turtle. Unfortunately, I lost sight of the beast in the swamp. I waited for the turtle to reappear and make its way across the path but I couldn’t relocate the critter. I left the scene and went about my appointed duties.
Towards the end of the day, as I walked past the Main Wetlands Overlook, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. It was a large snapper and it was on the overlook.
Was this the same turtle I had seen that morning? I suspect it was. The school groups were gone, I was the only person in Explore the Wild, and it was quiet. The turtle must have spent the day in the swamp across from the overlook and now felt safe enough to cross the path and get back to the water. It did, however, make an error in judgement in its attempt to get back home. Although it could see the water from the platform, and it could get its head under the railing, its shell was too large to pass through the opening. The turtle was trapped on the platform.
The turtle walked the outer railing, stopping every so often to try slipping under the rail.
My presence added more urgency to the turtle’s desire to get into water, but the railing wouldn’t give way to the turtle’s persistent attempts. I felt a need to help this turtle out of its dilemma. Yes, the turtle would have eventually made its way to one of the two open walkways of the overlook, but for some reason I felt I had to assist. After all, it was humans who erected this impediment to the turtle’s progress.
Now, snapping turtles are not creatures to be trifled with. Very strong, with steel-trap jaws and a spring-loaded neck that can project those jaws a foot and more at whatever it wanted to snap at. No, tread lightly when dealing with snappers.
I thought about grabbing the turtle by its tail and carrying it over to the water. Snappers can reach backward with their long necks nearly to the rear margin of their shells, but a naturalist can safely pick one up by the tail if careful. That tail looks very slippery, all covered with mud and algae. I had a better idea.
Throughout the day, I typically carry a pick-’em-up stick, a grabber, the type of tool one uses to snatch objects from an out of reach shelf or to pick up discarded candy wrappers, sterile wipes, and straws from paths and walkways. As previously alluded to, I knew that a snapping turtle would lunge out to bite whatever was put in front of its face. The grabber was just what I needed for the job.
I poked my pick-’em-up stick in the snapper’s face. Lightning fast, the turtle sprang out with its spring-loaded neck and clamped its steel-trap jaws on the end of the stick. I dragged the snapper three or four feet towards the exit of the overlook before the turtle let go. I tried again. The turtle stayed with me for another three or four feet. Four or five more drags and I had the turtle less than six feet from the water. All I had to do was turn the brute towards the water and it could slide down the gentle slope to freedom.
The turtle, however, was more interested in keeping an eye on me. I turned one way, the turtle turned with me. Finally, after a minute or two of dancing with the turtle, I was able to get it facing in the right direction. Down the slope it went.
I walked back onto the overlook deck to watch the turtle slip away under the water. A dozen or so feet out and the turtle poked its head out of the water. I don’t know what goes on in the minds of turtles, how much thought is involved in their daily routines, but I imagine this turtle was thinking something as it gazed back at me from the water, but I don’t reckon it was thank you.
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
He can be found Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dinosaur Trail. Ask him what’s new in the wild!