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Backyard Science -- Adventures in Reptile Distress

Daily routines are something of an intellectual shortcut. It isn't long before a simple set of actions, repeated every day, no longer requires much thought and we're free to think about more important matters. Like how best to get a raise at work, or about a new recipe for dinner. I imagine some of my routines, somewhat surprisingly, aren't too different from many other people. For example, I have an afternoon routine, practically a ritual, that I perform nearly every day of the week, Monday through Friday, rain, sleet, snow, or shine. At the end of my evening commute home, I get off the train at a nearby station, bound over a railing and down a flight of stairs, and hopefully meet a waiting car driven by my beautiful wife on her way home from work.

Most people who get off at this stop wait for the train to leave the station and prefer to walk out of their way through a "cattle chute" supposedly designed to make the process of crossing railroad tracks safer. In my case, along with a few other slightly impatient souls, I'd rather stand at the extreme end of the platform and wait for the train to clear out before taking a more direct route. Presumably this is somehow more risky, and definitely a bit more of a physical challenge when confronted with a five-foot tall fence. It's fun, to me, to hop up and over that -- especially since so far no one else is able to tackle it with either the grace or speed with which I overcome it. (The possibility exists, I have to admit, that the other passengers all think I'm a boring show-off and they are too embarrassed to compete with me, but I prefer to imagine that they simply can't.)

It is a surprisingly well-coordinated routine, given that my wife and I work about fifty miles from each other in opposite directions from home. But in one of those modern mundane miracles of communication and transportation that would have staggered the most organized minds on the planet a few centuries ago, we manage to synchronize our arrivals and departures so well, that she is there at the bottom of the steps more often than she isn't, and we enjoy a short drive from there to home together. True marital bliss with a style borrowed from the finest episodes of "Mission: Impossible."

Quite recently, as I leapt up over the railing to my wife and a nice drive home, I was presented with one of those odd little twists of chance that crop up every now and then to remind us all that no plan is perfect. For although my lovely wife was waiting as scheduled, her car was not. Right wife, wrong car sat at the bottom of the stairs. I observed this as I vaulted my feet up and over the railing and before they hit the ground I came to the realization that something must have gone wrong with her car; forcing her to borrow someone else's. So I dashed down the stairs, two at a time, and slid into the vehicle beside her and asked, "What happened to your car this time?"

To which my beloved replied, in a non-sequitor that rivaled my moments-prior leap for perfection, "You should see the turtle at the end of the parking lot!"

Not a Daily Routine

Bright as I like to think I am, my brain somehow still expected things to make sense, despite the right-girl-wrong-car warning it had just received. So my response was limited to a few moments of vacant blinking as the old cerebral cortex did its very best to reconcile question with answer. To preserve sanity, my gray matter deduced that this was an effort at misdirection, and once it did my amateur interest in herpetology was happy to kick in and go along with it. "What turtle?"

And so she explained, in the process of driving only a hundred or so meters onward, how she had passed an enormous turtle on the way in. By her description, it was clear this was no ordinary box, slider, or painted turtle that might be found in the area. This one was much too large. She also managed to mention something or other about having blown a cooling hose on her car and that she needed to get it serviced, but I just waved that distraction off as we neared the focus of this story. A beautiful, huge snapping turtle, resting beside the curb near the park entrance.

Click on these thumbnails to view larger images -- the white, t-shaped object is just over thirteen inches long.

Although turtles aren't known for their speed, it is always best to approach snappers cautiously. When on land, they can be especially vicious -- I think because they are insecure out of the water -- and they can strike with astonishing speed. So I approached very carefully from behind and examined him, because I thought he may have been injured by a passing car. This animal was unusually quiet, almost listless. And although his shell looked intact, I quickly saw signs of something else that might have been making the creature ill. It's legs, flippers, and neck were covered with tumor-like growths. I was horrified at the sight. Grabbing the animal's shell from either side and well away from the reach of its enormous, beak-like mouth, I lifted it off the ground put it on the grass closer to a nearby stream. I had hoped it would flee into the water at this disturbance, but it didn't struggle at all and only sighed when I put it back on the ground. Not a sign of a healthy specimen at all!

Sadly, I returned my attention to the odd tumors on its extremities and poked them with a stick, again hoping to prod the turtle into some sort of response. What I got was yet another horrifying surprise. The tumors moved! They wriggled about and reached out from where I had touched them, as though looking for something to grasp hold of. My eyes widened in revulsion at the realization that this once mighty animal was being devoured by squirming hordes of leeches.

Nature's Beauty

The natural world is a coldly indifferent one where suffering is ignored by the calculus of predator versus prey. No lion or tiger has ever considered the pain and terror of an antelope or gazelle in the course of its hunt, and it's safe to say we are the only species on the planet that consciously alters its diet out of mercy. Similarly, while many people view nature with awe as something beautiful, I happen to perceive it as merely something awful. And the horror this reptile was enduring was a perfect example of nature's way as something Lovecraftian.

I scooped the snapper up, and against my wife's protests, deposited him in the back seat of the car, whereupon I explained my plan: I'd remove the leeches and take care of him overnight, releasing him once he was nursed back to health. And, despite her revulsion at the sight of the leech infestation on the turtle, she nodded in agreement that it was the best thing to do.

Snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina, are common throughout the eastern half of North America. They can grow up to about 20 inches long and live for thirty to forty years. They typically weigh up to forty pounds, but some well-fed specimens have been as heavy as seventy-five pounds. They are omnivores, and will eat anything, but their principle diet is freshwater fish and river plants. They're jaws are very powerful, and when threatened, they can whirl and bite very quickly. I have heard of some people loosing fingers to snappers, but I'm not sure if those tales are true. In any event, I'd advise people to approach these animals, particularly the mature ones, with care. Better yet, observe them from a distance, they aren't particularly cuddly and neither you nor the turtle will get much out of you petting them.

During the brief ride home, this turtle was docile. It looked around, stretching its neck from its shell, but made no effort to move. I really was worried that it wasn't going to live for very long. When we got home, I carried him to our patio and started to think about how I'd try to help him.

Click on the thumbnails at your own risk -- these things are less cuddly than a snapping turtle!

Movie buffs might have a clue courtesy of Humphrey Bogart. In the 1951 adventure film, The African Queen, Bogart's character had a run-in with a few large leeches that had attached themselves to him. To get them off, he applied liberal amounts of salt to them and then vigorously rubbed them away. I had hoped that this wasn't just a piece of convenient movie fiction when I first recalled it back at the train station.

After placing the turtle on the patio, I got the garden hose and a large shaker of salt and hoped for the best. First, I rinsed the animal down, both for its own well being, and because I thought that moistening the leeches would increase the destructiveness of the salt. I then picked the turtle's left hind leg and doused it in plenty of salt. The mass of leeches immediately began to quiver in their death throws. I then hosed down the leg again and blasted about half the leeches away -- their slimey little corpses sprayed out across the patio half rolled into balls. Excellent. Note that they did not smolder or melt into little steaming puddles of goo or any other cool special effect. Simply watching them die was cool enough for me.

Clearing the snapper's hindquarters was simple enough. It didn't take me long to abandon using the hose to knock the dead and dying leeches away partly because some seemed resistant to the salt, and partly because the turtle didn't like the blast of cold water and would retract it's leg, thus protecting the leeches, every time. So I used a pair of needle-nose pliers to grab them and pull them away. Most came away with little more than a tug. Those who held on firmly got a second dose of salt and another tug.

Click on the thumbnails from a distance -- that mouth might be able to take a finger off!

Clearing the front legs and neck were another matter. Although the creature had been listless when I first found him, after an hour or so he had had plenty of gulps of water and seemed to be recovering some of his strength. At one point, Leopold (as my stepson had christened him as he watched my efforts), decided to make a break for it and "run away." Note that there is little of anything a turtle can do that can be classified as "running." So I let him move off for a few minutes and rest near a bush for a bit while I considered how to proceed.

Look, I know I said that I doubt the veracity of those stories about losing fingers to snapping turtles. But saying that and actually putting it to the test with one or two of your own digits are two different things. If any reader is keen enough to get to the bottom of this story with experimentation, let them try it with their fingers. Personally, I earn part of my living with my typing skills, and I don't want to keep missing the F and T keys the rest of my life! But I did notice that old Leopold did not seem to relish any stream of water that shot directly into his face. He'd shut his eyes and bow his head every time.

So, I rinsed down his front and salted the mounds into submission, then sprayed a gentle flow of water into his face with one hand while the other got within centimeters of that mouth with the needle-nose pliers; plucking the parasites off one at a time. I congratulated myself on this tactic quite a bit early on, but there was one point towards the end when I noticed he had gotten used to the water and was watching my every move quite carefully. For a moment, I anthropomorphized his behavior and almost convinced myself that he understood I was trying to help him and that he was being patient with me until I was finished. Then I counted my fingers again and increased the flow of water into his face until he hunkered down once more.

All totaled, it took a little over two hours to clean Leopold off. Towards the end, I placed a few of the parasites I pulled from him into a green plastic cup (see above). That sample represents less than five percent of what came off the poor snapper's body. A few had even tried to attach themselves to his carapace...I guess even leeches have under-achievers in their species!

During this time, I had a few additional observations about this particular animal. First, he smelled like old, fried seafood. I later learned that snapping turtles have scent glands that they use as a defense...a little like a reptilian skunk. It gives them a very strong, musky odor that is not at all pleasant, but tolerable. Second, the carapace of a snapper is remarkably sensitive. He would respond to almost any touch by tipping his shell against it and pushing. I've seen my pet iguana do this, and I've wondered if the reaction was one of pleasure, like a kitten leaning into scratching fingers. I now believe that it is the opposite; reptiles are wired differently than mammals and this response is one intended to push annoying contact away. Finally, and this may disturb some of you, but you may have noticed my repeated use of the male pronoun in describing this reptile. While some animals exhibit strong sexual dimorphism, I wasn't at all familiar enough with any species of turtle to guess whether he was a boy or a girl. However, he did have a rather prominent fear reaction to being held a few feet off the ground that convinced me of his gender. A male snapping turtle's penis is smooth, horn-shaped, cream-colored, and intricately veined. It looks very moist and in this specimen extended up to about three inches. No, I did not touch or photograph the phallus...there are some things even I won't do in the interest of curiosity or science.

By now, I was confident that he was doing much better than I expected he would. Rather than keep him a day or two, I elected to set him free immediately. Rather than returning him to the park where we found him, I decided to put him into a stream near my house. The water there is full of fish and a little bit more quiet and clean than the park he was living in. This stream and the one in his park ultimately merge a mile or so away from my home anyway, so it's not like I'm contaminating any local ecology with an alien species. For all I know, he once lived near my home anyway.

So all that remained was to clean his wounds and set him free. For reptiles, I prefer to clean injuries with betadyne, but our supply was empty, and I was forced to rinse down his wounds with alcohol. He tolerated this pretty well, and so I bundled him up in a box and my family, my next-door neighbor, and I carted him off to his new home. I set him at a shallow portion of the creek, and watched happily as he dragged himself into deeper water and gracefully paddled to a safe place.

Click on the thumbnails to view a happy ending -- play "find the turtle!"

Note: all photos were taken after "Leopold" was freed of his leeches.

Psion on 2002-06-23 03:36:06


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