A close encounter with an ancient snapper

Posted Feb. 25, 2011, at 8:04 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 25, 2011, at 10:47 p.m.

ORONO, Maine —  It was a fine April morning. I was out for a walk with my daughter, Ann, and we walked down to a swollen stream near the University of Maine.

A huge snapping turtle sunning itself nearby on the bank caught us by surprise.  His head was cantaloupe-sized, his face wrinkled. His small, close-set eyes, and a tapering nose ended at a beak-like point. His large feet were adorned with claws that looked like they’d been borrowed from a grizzly bear. His arched shell, 23 inches in diameter, was etched like a topographical map. He didn’t move as I approached, because he’d just emerged from his winter’s sleep in the mud of a nearby beaver swamp.

It takes a couple weeks for a turtle’s metabolism to resume normal function after hibernation — a time when their lethargy makes them vulnerable to predation. Although snapping turtles cannot retreat into their shells when faced with danger, they can usually run back to the safety of water or whip their formidable heads around to confront whatever might be pursuing them. However, the time of year precluded these lines of defense for the old turtle, and this soon would nearly result in his demise.

Later that day, I returned with my camera to document the giant. I explored his home range, walking downstream into the old beaver swamp where I discovered a large pool teeming with the season’s fecundity: larvae of every sort, newts,  small fish, and eggs of salamanders, toads and frogs. Another snapping turtle rested on the far side.

Where the stream resumed beyond the dam, minnows undulated in the current. I flushed a female mallard, and where she had erupted I discovered her nest constructed of last year’s dead grass and hundreds of her own mist-colored down feathers. Inside were 11 cream-colored eggs. I quickly retreated.

Movement nearby revealed a pregnant doe and her previous year’s twins, motionless but for their twitching tails. Back at the pool, I watched two pairs of flickers noisily trying out tree cavities. With a veritable bonanza of possible home sites, the females darted in and out of this one and that, proclaiming the pros and cons of each to the respective mate.

When I returned the next morning for a few more photos, I saw an alder stick propped in the mud with a heavy-duty line attached to a huge hook. The turtle was still on the stream bank, but something was wrong. A quarter-sized hole in his shell oozed blood. My first thought was that he’d been shot. I knelt down to palpate the hole. Thankfully it did not penetrate into his body below. If a bullet had not done this, what had?

Then I saw another alder stick, one end sharpened to a point, discarded in the grass. The sharpened end was pulverized as if it had been used to repeatedly strike something harder. It appeared someone came upon the helpless old turtle and hit him over and over until the shell bore testimony. When the stick gave out, it was tossed aside, and the injured animal was left to live or die.

Many people revile snapping turtles, convinced that they over-consume game fish and ducklings. They never stop to think that fish and ducks evolved with turtles, which is why these species have so many young — and why of all the hatchling turtles, only a few make it to the water and survive. In the end, a balance is achieved among them. Yet all too often, snapping turtles fall prey to man’s ignorance and misguided aggression.

The ancient turtle had survived this attack, but because I was unsure how badly he was injured, I made some calls to learn what could be done for him. Inland Fisheries & Wildlife  Biologist Beth Swartz told me that, however abhorrent, it was not illegal to hurt, maim or kill snapping turtles. Fearing the perpetrator would return to finish what he started, I asked if I could move the turtle to another wetland. Beth said that would be OK, and that a huge trash barrel could be used for transport.

Next, I contacted my friend and former mentor, Dr. Mark McCullough of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Orono.  He suggested that Avian Haven, a rehabilitation facility for birds in Freedom, also takes in injured reptiles.

Marc Payne, co-director of Avian Haven, said he’d be happy to assess the turtle’s injury. Later, Ann and I had the snapper nestled in Rubbermaid’s largest trash barrel. We were carrying the 60-pound load to the car when a bevy of college-age men out for a run stopped to look. Then, bless them all, they hoisted the barrel among them and carried it the rest of the way before parting with wishes of good luck for the old turtle!

An hour later, Payne met us at the entrance to Avian Haven. He said he’d never seen such a big snapper and did some quick research that determined this was one of the largest recorded in Maine. Although there is no precise way to age them, he estimated this turtle could be between 100 and 150 years old.

Payne said the injury was not life-threatening, and after he cleaned it, he applied an antibiotic and a bio-occlusive dressing that would come off on its own in a week or two. He said we could return the old turtle to his home. I had thought about relocating him, but ultimately decided against it because at this old age, it seemed more humane to bring him back to his own wetland — just deeper in the swamp where human predators were less likely to penetrate — yet where every nook and cranny was familiar.

Back at the swamp, we tipped the barrel on its side, and the ancient turtle crawled slowly out , sliding into the water. The bandage on his shell gleamed white and was the last part of him we could see as he swam to the bottom.

Several months later, I returned to check on the old turtle. I found him sunning himself near the smaller female snapper, the bandage long gone and the stab wound well healed. Both turtles bee-lined it for the water as soon as they saw me, quickly disappearing.

As another Maine winter comes to a close, turtles soon will be coming “up from the deep” again. May those who encounter them be kind, and may the old snapper — if he survived another winter — live out his days in peace.

Kathy Pollard is an artist, basket maker and naturalist living in Orono, Maine. She studied Wildlife Management and Nursing at the University of Maine in Orono.

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