Friday, April 10, 2009

No Good Deed...

Alligator snapping turtles are among the rarest animals in the southeast. Many eggs and hatchlings are eaten by predators before they become breeding adults, but once they do reach maturity, they live long lives. These factors combine to make turtle populations vulnerable to declines when adult turtles are removed. If young turtles disappeared, it wouldn’t influence the population much because many are eaten by predators anyway. But if adults are removed, they don’t get enough of a chance to produce enough young to replace them.

In the past, the major threat to alligator snapping turtle populations was commercial hunting. Collecting turtles for soup, trappers they would move from creek to creek, harvesting them by the ton. To this day, our rivers haven’t recovered and these turtles remain rare in most areas. It’s currently illegal to take alligator snapping turtles in Alabama or Georgia, but they are often caught by accident on trot lines. Trot lines are fishing lines tied to branches overhanging the water. They are baited and left overnight in the hopes of hooking a lunker catfish; however, the next day may reveal an ornery turtle instead.

Removing a hook from a large snapping turtle is no small feat and most fishermen prefer to cut the line rather than get their fingers near its mouth. The turtle is then allowed to slink back into the depths of the river in the hopes that the hook will dissolve before it leads to digestive problems or death. On the other hand, upon catching an alligator snapping turtle, some will take the opportunity to bring it home and eat it. It’s unknown if this is done because of ignorance of the law, but in any case, it’s why William Wilder came upon a 70 pound turtle sitting in the bed of a pickup parked outside a bar in Brookwood, Alabama.

William doesn’t consider himself a biologist and probably doesn’t fully appreciate how valuable adult turtles are to a population, but he did know the turtle in the parking lot was huge and that probably meant it was old. Too old just to end up as someone’s dinner.

Wilder identified the owner of the truck and offered him $10 for the turtle. To his relief, the offer was accepted (hopefully he used that $10 to buy a couple sandwiches for dinner, rather than catch another turtle). Now short $10 but up 70 pounds of reptile, William stopped off at his house before releasing the turtle, perhaps to show off the beast to his friends and family.

It was there, on the front porch of his house, where the rescued yet ungrateful snapping turtle bit off William’s thumb and finger.

With his hand stuck in the turtle’s mouth, William ignored the pleas of his concerned family and refused to let anyone kill the stubborn animal. He had a $10 investment in it, after all, and the turtle was destined for a safe release. Only via the intervention of four emergency medical technicians was William’s hand extracted from the turtle. Doctors were able to reattach his thumb but his finger is lost forever.

The old snapping turtle was treated at a nearby animal clinic and released into the Blackwater River, probably oblivious to his close call and eager to hide once again in the watery depths.

William Wilder saved a turtle from the pot that has likely been crawling around the river since World War II. He lost $10 and a finger, and spent two days of his life recovering in the hospital. In return, the rare alligator snapping turtle has the chance to spend the rest of its life in peace, hopefully away from both hooks and fingers.

A snapping turtle that likely prefers dead fish to fingers

* * * *

There is no denying that both “common” snapping turtles and alligator snapping turtles may be an ornery bunch when you take them out of their watery habitats and harass them on land.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t handle them safely, if you have a good reason for doing so. Far and away the most important rule is to keep your hands away from their mouth. Alligator snapping turtles can’t move their neck much because their head is so heavy. This means that if you respect the turtle by keeping your distance from the front part of the shell, there is almost no chance of this animal biting you. On the other hand, “common” snapping turtles, which are a different species, can quickly move their head around to bite if they feel threatened. This species has such a long neck that it can reach your hand if it’s touching just about any part of their shell. It’s that long.

I’ve captured, measured, and handled about 100 snapping turtles in upstate New York while conducting research for my masters research, another 100 or so while surveying Assateague Island National Seashore for amphibians and reptiles, and I’ve handled perhaps eight alligator snapping turtles when I lived in Georgia. I have never been bitten, despite exposing these turtles to various indignities as I posed with them for photographs or flipped them upside down to check whether it was male or female.

Any animal with a mouth can bite, but not without cause or opportunity. If, for some reason, it is necessary to handle a snapping turtle, just keep your fingers where it can’t reach them.

Some articles on this story have erroneously attributed an inaccurate quote to a member of the Alabama Wildlife Center stating alligator snapping turtles are thought to deplete fish populations. No biologist thinks this.


lisa said...

I can attest to the reach of the common snappers. I have stopped to move them off the road a few times up here in NE Wisconsin, and the first one reminded me (quickly) how long their necks are-he nearly got a chunk out of me, and I was holding onto the back of the shell near his back legs! I saw he'd already been injured by a car, and his shell was cracked and bleeding. What are the odds he survived such an injury? (If there wasn't internal damage.) My parents butchered a large one in Indiana when I was a kid, but I couldn't bear to eat any after I saw the carnage. Dad showed me how long their necks are at that time-very handy info for later!

David Steen said...

If there was only shell damage, there's a good chance that the turtle could have made it. The concern with this type of injury is infection. Many wildlife rehabbers have found that sometimes a turtle will recover from injuries from cars once the shell is sealed with epoxy. The vast majority of interactions between turtles and cars however, is death.

They say that there's seven kinds of meat in snapping turtle, you didn't try any of them?

lisa said...

Naw, after I watched my dad gut the poor thing and then tell me I could "play with the float bladder like a balloon"...I lost my appetite. It was a big turtle too, I recall he had trouble fitting it in the trunk of the car!

aristide said...

gran bella passione complimenti e anche bei posti

Anonymous said...

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Wilder and his family not long after his release from the hospital. I was there at his house to retrieve the turtle for later release. They told me their story, I saw Mr. Wilder's bandages (on BOTH hands). And even at that moment he was still so proud for saving this turtle. He knew that the accident was his mistake and that the turtle was merely reacting to a situation that was forced upon him. If there were only more people like Mr. Wilder and family, the world would be a better place. It was inspiring. If you ever get the chance to thank them DO IT. They deserve it!

David Steen said...

It's encouraging to know there are people out there with these values.