Column: Why did the turtle cross the road?As Wildwoods volunteer Kate Beard drove through Brainerd to meet colleagues for dinner, she kept an eye out for animals.
By: Elyse Hornstein, For the Budgeteer News
As Wildwoods volunteer Kate Beard drove through Brainerd to meet colleagues for dinner, she kept an eye out for animals.
When a turtle in the middle of the road caught her eye, she pulled over at the next intersection, then dutifully turned the car around. Her tired husband protested, saying he was sure the turtle had made it across the road. But Kate knew turtles were on the move to lay their eggs and needed help.
Sure enough, when Kate arrived, the turtle had moved only 3 inches, and oncoming cars were indifferent to her plight. Kate slipped some cardboard beneath her, scooted her across the highway, then continued on her way.
Turtles are ancient reptiles that have been around since the age of the dinosaurs. The turtle’s shell is a time-tested adaptation, and though it makes the creature rather slow on land, it has deflected predators from dinosaurs to modern-day dogs.
Humans are one of the few species that can get under a turtle’s shell. And we do: We eat them, make medicines from them, and on occasion hit them with cars (sometimes even on purpose!).
We are serious threats to these ancient creatures, actually driving some onto the endangered species list. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists 129 of the 207 species of turtles and tortoises alive today as endangered.
Several turtles found in the Northland are increasingly rare, including the common snapping turtle. The common snapping turtle has been a species of “special concern” since 1984, meaning its numbers are dwindling below what experts consider healthy for the population. Despite this, the DNR grants licenses allowing people to harvest snapping turtles for meat.
Peak snapping turtle harvest is in June, which is also when turtles lay their eggs. Egg-laying season is a perilous time for turtles of all species, as they must leave the water to seek out the sandy shores, fields, and sometimes even gravel roads where they bury their eggs.
Turtles move slowly over land, and are especially vulnerable to cars.
So what’s the best way to help a turtle cross the road?
First, always move the turtle in the direction it is already going. With painted turtles, red-eared sliders and other turtles that are not snapping turtles, simply pick the turtle up with both hands, holding it firmly by the sides of the shell. Cross the road and put the turtle down in the grass on the other side. Never pick any turtle up by the tail; you can cause serious spinal damage.
Moving a snapping turtle is a little tricker. Snapping turtles have very long necks, and the head can reach nearly to the back of the shell. However, there are several good ways to move a snapping turtle while keeping your hands safe.
You may grab the back of the snapper’s shell on either side of the tail with both hands, turn the turtle around, drag it gently backward across the road, then turn it around again so that it is facing the right way. You may slide a floor mat, sheet, jacket, or piece of cardboard under the turtle, turn it around, drag it backward across the road, then turn it the right way around again. To watch an informative video about different ways to safely and easily move a snapper, check out the YouTube video “How to help a snapping turtle cross the road.”
If you find a turtle that has been hit by a car and is injured, please pick it up, put it into
a box and take it to a wildlife rehabilitator. Many shell fractures
can be repaired, and turtles who cannot be helped will be given a gentle release from their suffering.
While many people don’t see the death of a single turtle as significant, we at Wildwoods look at the big picture. Helping one turtle across the road might save a whole clutch of eggs. That’s a dozen more turtles, each of which might create another dozen. These ancient reptiles have survived since the age of the dinosaurs; let’s help them survive the age of cars.
For more information on wildlife and how you can help, please visit our website: www.wildwoodsrehab.org.
Elyse Hornstein studied journalism at Ithaca College. Currently, she works for Wildwoods, a wildlife rehabilitation group in Duluth.