“You should be able to push him from behind,” said the other motorist, who had also seen the young snapping turtle sitting in the middle of the exressway right after I did and pulled up as I was taking some “pre-rescue” pictures. “Nyeah, I think I’ll go ahead and get something to push him with anyway,” I said, hoping that the tone of my voice did not betray my true thoughts, “What, are you crazy? I’m not putting my bare fingers or sandal-clad feet anywhere near that thing!” I’ve rescued plenty of snappers over the years, and I know first hand just how surprisingly quick they can be. Truth be told, snapping turtles can be safely moved by hand – apparently they cannot reach the back of or underneath their shell. However, it takes considerably more temerity than I possess to actually try this. I grabbed a bicycle pump from the back of the truck and hooked the base of it under its shell. Immediately, the young turtle snapped at the pump – startling the man as well as two other cyclists who had stopped to watch the goings on. I admit to feeling more than a little vindicated as they all stepped back a few steps. I was hoping the turtle would maintain his grip on the pump so I could just carry him over to the roadbank, but every time I tried to lift he let go. So I had to just keep hooking the pump under his shell and pulling him towards the side of the road – the turtle fought every bit of the way, hissing and snapping and clawing against the road. At last he was in the grass – it was then an easy matter to roll him over a few times down the bank and safely (for now) away from the road.
Road mortality is suspected to have contributed to widespread population declines in turtles across the United States. This seems especially true for freshwater aquatic species, which often make land migrations for breeding. Vehicles often do not stop for turtles in the road, and I have seen some (usually a pickup truck with very large tires) swerve deliberately in an attempt to hit them (or even more sadistically, “shoot” them across the roadway). Conincident with these declines has been a demographic change towards male-biased populations in many freshwater species. Adult female freshwater turtles make nesting migrations that males do not and are often attracted to road shoulders and embankments as nesting habitat, making them disproportionately more vulnerable to road mortality. The resulting male-biasing surely represents an additional risk factor to their populations, especially in areas where high traffic occurs in proximity to wetlands. In such places, mitigation measures such as barriers and wildlife underpasses are clearly warranted (Steen et al. 2006).
I’ve always been a little awed by snappers – so grizzled and ancient, almost dinosaurian, and while I doubt that my sporadic rescues have near as much impact as barriers or underpasses, I do know that they cannot possibly hurt. As for this turtle, whether it continued on its way or turned around and crawled back onto the road (due to my unwittingly placing it on the side from which it just came) will remain unknown. I was heartened to see that I wasn’t the only person who stopped, intent on saving this grotesquely beautiful creature. But as I scanned this miles-long stretch of very recently constructed roadway, which now enables St. Louis countians to rapidly zip along next to newly created wetlands in the Missouri River bottoms while avoiding the stop-and-go on I-270, I couldn’t help but wonder why barriers and underpasses, seemingly simple protective measures, weren’t also included on the final blueprints of the roadway before they were sent to the printers. If such had been done, then I would not have had this encounter. But I could’ve lived with that.