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Sy Montgomery: Snapper on the Road

I was driving home from the airport, on my way back from a trip to Chicago, when I saw it: in the lane opposite mine, on busy Route 101, a huge snapping turtle was emerging the forest, about to step into the road.

I pulled over immediately. You can’t hesitate when a turtle’s in the road. With drivers busy with cell phones and blackberries, they often don’t see the other cars in front of them, much less a turtle. In the time it took me to park and dash across the busy highway, the snapper already had one of her huge, armored feet on the yellow line separating the outermost edge of the lane from the shoulder.

Had she been a painted or a box turtle, a spotted or a wood turtle, of course, I would have simply picked her up and run her to the other side at the first gap in traffic, as I have done many times.  But this won’t work for a big snapper. Her shell was at least two and a half feet long. She was too heavy for me to lift—and if I tried, she’d bite me, hard. Neither could I induce her to just turn around and go back into the woods behind her. Especially in fall and spring, turtles undertake migrations, and some scientists think they are following ancient pathways they have been using for thousands of years. If she wanted to go over THERE, well, there was no stopping her, no convincing her otherwise. She would just try to cross again at the earliest opportunity.

But if I were to save her life, I had to stop her–now. The only tool in my trunk of potential use for this task was a collapsible umbrella. This I unfurled, and placed it, like a bright blue curtain, in front of her face. It served both to stop the turtle and to attract the attention of oncoming drivers not to run us both over.

The umbrella stopped her cold all right; but what now? How could I get her across?  Pulling a turtle by its tail or legs can injure its spine. But a big snapper won’t usually give you a chance: with its powerful clawed back feet, it grabs your hands and rakes them across the sharp serrated edge of the back of the shell, then turns around and bites you.

I couldn’t get her to step into the umbrella’s bowl and pull her across, either. She was too heavy and would have torn through the fabric. Then she’d be in the middle of the road, which was even worse. Also the handle was too short for safety. Snappers jump. She could have easily bitten me. I thought about going into the woods to hunt for a big stick to use as a tool, but I couldn’t afford to let go of the umbrella. The gathering wind would have blown it away, and the turtle would have headed into traffic. I had to stay with her, holding the umbrella.

I realized I might be doing this for a very, very long time. There might, I thought, eventually be a large enough gap in traffic so she could cross at her natural pace–at some point after nightfall. It was about 4:30 p.m.. But I knew I could not leave her, or she’d be doomed. Too many damned, stupid drivers who don’t even watch out for animals on the road….I began to curse them under my breath.

And then the cars started pulling over.

“Need help?” a woman with two kids and a babysitter in the car waved and called from her window, as she pulled over in the oncoming lane. A blond woman also pulled over and got out to look at the turtle.  “She must be 100 years old!” she gasped in wonder. “I’ll go find a stick in the woods. Maybe she’ll bite it and we can drag her across.”

Another car pulled over in the opposite lane. “I have a rake!” shouted a tall man as he emerged from the car. “Can you use it?” As I held the turtle at bay with the umbrella, the blonde woman emerged from the forest with a fat stick. She presented it to the snapper, who promptly bit it off.  In doing so, the snapper launched herself partway into the air so the front of her huge plastron left the ground. Plan A clearly wasn’t going to work.  Then I had another idea. “Does anyone have a cardboard box?” I asked. “We can dismantle it and pull her across like a sled.”

The first lady went back to her car and did me one better. Thanks to her two kids, she happened to be carting around one of those plastic sled-like devices you can use to slide down hills, snowy or not. It came conveniently equipped with a long rope pull. We used the man’s rake to help coax the turtle onto the plastic sled. At the first break in traffic, while the rake man watched for oncoming cars, I pulled her across.

To get her well away from the road, I wanted to pull her up a small hill, but the rake guy saw I wasn’t strong enough to do it; he took over the reins. And then, as she hissed and snapped, he gently dumped her out of her sled, safe and sound.

“She’ll never know how much we helped her today,” he said to me.

“No,” I said, “but we know.”

That was enough for me.

Sy Montgomery is the author of several books, including Search for the Golden Moon Bear.

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