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McCallum: Turtle Diaries

07/25/12 7:55AM By Mary McCallum
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(Host) Educator, writer and commentator Mary McCallum has learned firsthand the value of driving more slowly in order to protect one of nature’s most long lived creatures.

(McCallum) I am one of those drivers who watch the shoulder of the road as I zoom along, ever on the alert for some speck of wildlife in need of a helping hand. Over a two-week period recently, I had three roadside turtle experiences. Snapping turtles, that is. There are many misconceptions about these venerable creatures who once walked with the dinosaurs but now walk our dangerous roadsides. In fact, vehicle traffic is the worst threat to these lumbering reptiles that have no natural enemies.

I was on Route 4 one drizzly morning when I spied a large blackish shape creeping across the left lane of traffic toward the grassy median. When it stopped and raised itself on four sturdy legs, I realized it was an enormous snapper and quickly pulled onto the shoulder and flicked on the emergency flashers. I carefully crossed two lanes as cars speeded by, heedless of both me and the gigantic turtle standing on the road.

She looked to be more than 25 pounds, and her dark greenish-brown carapace was mottled, mossy and ancient. I say "she" because I assumed she was an elder in the annual female nesting migration. She was too heavy to lift. When I gently nudged her with my foot toward the grass she rose up fiercely. I stared down at her magical ancientness and said a prayer that she would make it across the next two lanes beyond the safety of the median. Despite the steady flashing of my hazard lights and the sight of me so close to traffic, no one stopped to lend a hand, and I had to be on my way.

A week later, a friend and I witnessed a huge snapper breathe her last on the side of a busy road after being hit by a car; and we cried. The following week, yet another female hustling across a well-traveled road made me pull over and monitor her progress, clearly hampered by a missing leg. Her hurried, lopsided push-and-pull to the other side affirmed her urgency to find her nesting spot. She made it.

These brushes with life and death have made me more sympathetic to the plight of all turtles, but especially the often misunderstood snapper. They’re single minded and determined, as evidenced by females who navigate complex rugged terrain and can journey up to ten miles round trip to reach the right nesting spot. And they are long lived, with some lucky few gargantuans reaching the century mark. I say lucky because most don’t.

Life on American highways takes its toll on all of us, but especially wildlife. My recent snapping turtle moments bore out the truth of some words I'd read in naturalist David Carroll's book, The Year of the Turtle: He said, "Snapping turtles, embodiment of turtles who shared the earth with the dinosaurs for a time and are now obliged to share it with the human species, might well report that the former companions were far less stressful."
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