I WAS DRIVING HOME from the airport when I saw it: in the lane opposite mine, on busy Route 101, a huge snapping turtle was emerging from the forest, about to step onto the road.
I pulled over immediately. You can’t hesitate in a situation like this. In the time it took me to park and dash across the highway, the snapper had already placed one of her armored feet on the painted line demarcating the road’s shoulder.
Had she been a different species, I would have simply picked her up and carried her across. 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 turn around and go back into the woods behind her. Female turtles undertake migrations to lay their eggs in the fall and spring, and some scientists think they are following ancient pathways used for thousands of years. If she wanted to go in that direction, there would be no convincing her otherwise.
If I were going to save her life, I would have to stop her — now. The only tool in my trunk that could be of use was an umbrella, which I quickly unfurled, and placed, like a bright blue curtain, in front of her face. The umbrella stopped her cold. What now? How could I get her across? Pulling a turtle by its tail or legs can injure its spine, and a big snapper won’t usually give you a chance anyway. With powerful, clawed back feet, the turtle grabs your hands and rakes them across the sharp, serrated back edge of its shell. Then it 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. And the handle was too short for safety — snappers jump. But nor could I afford to let go of the umbrella. The gathering wind would blow it away, and the turtle would have headed into traffic. I had to stay with her, I thought, realizing I could be doing this for a very, very long time. There might eventually be enough of a gap in the traffic for her to cross at her natural pace, perhaps after nightfall, but that was hours away.
Bloody hell! Too many stupid drivers who don’t care enough to watch out for animals on the road. I began to curse them under my breath as I prepared to sit vigil on the side of the road.
And then the cars started pulling over.
“Need help?” a dark-haired woman with two kids in her station wagon called from her window as she waved and pulled over in the oncoming lane. A blond woman in a blue car also pulled over. “That turtle must be one hundred years old!” she gasped in wonder. “What should I do?” I suggested she find us a fat stick in the forest. Maybe the turtle would bite it and we could use that to drag her across the highway.
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 blond woman emerged from the forest with an appropriately sturdy, fat stick. She presented it to the snapper, who lunged so powerfully that the front half of her breastplate left the ground as she leapt and bit the edge of the stick off.
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 woman 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 sledlike devices you can use to slide down grassy hills. It was even equipped with a long pull rope.
We used the rake to coax the turtle onto the plastic sled. At the first break in traffic, while the others watched for oncoming cars, I pulled her across to the other side.
To get her well away from the speeding cars, I wanted to pull her up a small hill, but the rake guy saw I wasn’t strong enough to do it. He took the reins and tugged her up and over a rise in the woods. Then, as the turtle hissed and snapped, he gently slid her off her sled, safe and sound.
Hooray – a happy ending for turtle and for Sy and her helpers. With our faith in humanity restored, this parable teaches us that when we work together to accommodate our wider community, magic is possible.
If only all people would have caring for all the animals in this world! It is so special that some people really care. That these people worked together to save such a fine creature is wonderful!
There is hope. I loved this story. My favorite Sy Montgomery book is the Good Good Pig.
What a lovely story..happy you shared it here and I am introduced to a new children’s author about animals. Can’t wait to find some….thx much…..sue
Don’t want to spoil anything by sounding like a know-it-all, but we always pick up even really huge snappers by the tail to carry them. Doesn’t hurt them, and if you hold it away from your body it can’t bite. But do be careful — they can take off a finger!
Equal parts storyteller, naturalist and animal lover, my friend Sy reminds us that sometimes the best idea is to stop and pick up strangers…
And we send her on with a prayer. May she find that the habitat of her nesting ground is still welcoming. May she experience a safe return to her home waters after laying her eggs. And come late in the summer, may the newly hatched turtles navigate their way to safe home waters as well.
What a great story. Here in North Georgia, on our road, a perched culvert blocks the streambed the turtles migrate along, and they come up and over the road. We monitor this from April to October. I carry a large Rubbermaid container and a shovel in the car. We turn the bin on its side and use the shovel to gently nudge the snappers into the bin, and carry them across. The spiny softshells get the same treatment, because they can bite, too! (P.S., the county engineering department plans to replace this culvert this summer, and we are hopeful that the new culvert will resolve this problem.)
Sy Montgomery I am eternally grateful for your work and especially for the lesson your story, “Snapper on the Road”, brings into my life just now. Indeed one dedicated individual and one determined turtle prompted human ingenuity, collaboration and ancient memories to achieve a united purpose. Life. The fact that children witnessed this event makes my heart soar! The stories they will tell…wow!
Thank you! Now I know what to do in a similar situation.
Many memories and some guilt. First the memories of snapping turtles at Granny’s house and pond in Pennsylvania and later stopping along and directing traffic for a couple of turtles. Now the guilt over the bad habits acquired as roads and cars got bigger and faster. I wonder if I don’t see them now because I and others drive too fast.
I remember hitting a couple of snowshoe hairs on the road to Fairbanks. They were suffering and dying on the pavement when my husband killed. We did not have a knife or gun with us. Left with his barehand, he did the best he could I will never forget them crying like babies as he twisted their necks leaving a wound in my soul.
This story touched the same place but with joy. Thanks
Thank you for that recollection. My heart is full and hopeful for the good people who take the time out to help a fellow creature, no matter what….
Thank you so much for this beautifully written story!
It reminds me that we stumbled on a rescue tactic that others could use. When a sparrow got in our house and of course, would only fly up to the ceiling, my husband got a forked branch (dia. 1 in, length @ 6ft.) and we held it in front of the bird’s breast. She jumped right on it, and rode down the stairs and outside into the “aria’ of open air.
what a poetic story. I am sure to use it in my Nature Education classes. I am reminded of the beautiful poem – BIRDFOOTâ€™S GRAMPA by Joseph Bruchac. Ya the turtle has also a long way to go and the right to way in the human world we are creating on top of the Living Earth. Thank you Orion for publishing such a heart warming true story and thank you all friends who helped the snapper cross the road
Was this on the west coast? If so, snapping turtles are not native there and they are quite a problem. It’s important to know what is native and what is not. If you are helping an invasive species that could be competing with declining natives, bringing diseases that natives are not immune to, etc., you are not doing the natural world any favors. I hope you did this in a state where snappers belong! You have a strong and kind heart.
Just as an FYI, from the Connecticut wildlife division fact sheet on snapping turtles:
“Snapping turtles should never be picked up by their tails as this can damage the animal’s vertebral column and tail, …”
Their tails are part of their spines. If you can find another means to move them from the road, that’s best.
Ahhhhh…. good to hear from kindred spirits. I tell people that the reason I was put on this Earth is to help newts cross the road. One time, about dusk, I had just carried one across, when I heard the thump, thump, thump of a ramped-up bass in an approaching car. It stopped as I stood there, bracing for — what? Something unpleasant, maybe. The car window rolled down and a teenage boy said, “Ma’am, is everything OK? Do you need any help?” This story made me feel good in the same way.
I love this, thank you, Sy. I move snappers off the road whenever I can and I’m lucky to have a friend (NY State Wildlife Rehab) who fixes turtles hit by cars. She can repair broken shells and even broken jaws, and she has rehab snappers roaming her house, recovering through winter until release in spring. When snappers understand that you’re not a threat, they stop striking. There are always grumpy ones, but then we are like that, too. I close my YA novel, Blue Iguana, with the character moving a snapper off the road.