Thursday, February 11, 2010

Saving Turtles

Brighten Your Day

“…As they raced around sharp turns and up and down steep hills, all of a sudden they stopped. Before she could protest, David had jumped out of the car. She saw him bend down and pick something up and put it at the edge of a stream that was running along the road. “What was…” she started to ask. But, before she could finish, he said “Turtle… it was a turtle that was stuck in the road. I thought it needed to be rescued…” Future Hope, ITP Book One

In Future Hope Major David Sanders, the main protagonist, is racing along at about 600 km/hr when he suddenly stops, jumps out of the car, rescues a turtle from being trapped in the road and then goes on his way. The practice of saving these slow, seemingly helpless terrapins is one that I have participated for years.

I have lived in the Houston, Texas area for about twenty years. I have rescued turtles stranded in the road about six times over these years. At first I never thought much about it. The first liberation came about nineteen years ago. Our oldest daughter was about 1 ½ years old and my wife was six months pregnant. We were driving down Space Center Boulevard, just before the NASA complex when we saw a large turtle at the side of the road.

There was a high curb and it was obvious that the turtle would not be able to navigate the climb and was not smart enough to saunter down the road fifty feet to a point where there was no curb. I stopped the car, thinking that my wife, who was closest, would jump out and flip the beast up over the edge. She gave me a sharp, incredulous look, never said a word, but I immediately got the picture. I walked thirty feet back to the turtle and took a good look at the “helpless” animal. The shell seemed a bit rounded and its mouth had a hooked “beak”.

Vague recollections from childhood, particularly of springtime along Collins Lake warned me to be careful. Every spring a similar sort of turtle made its way into our backyard and deposited her eggs in the sand of our tether ball court.

“I think that’s a snapping turtle”, I told my wife. As a surgeon, I value all my fingers, so naturally I was a bit reluctant to try to grab the stranded turtle with my bare hands. Luckily, we had an infant in the car and with the infant came a diaper bag large enough to hold enough baby changing implements for a week. Being a resourceful surgeon, I located the changing pad and a blanket. Casually, I walked back to the turtle and nonchalantly tried to cover it with the blanket, a trick similar to one I’d seen used on thoroughbreds that were reluctant to enter the starting gate.

The turtles head shot out with surprising rapidity and latched onto the blanket. Not a complete loss; with the turtles jaws firmly clenched on the blanket I was able to turn him around so that, at least, he was facing the curb. Now, how to get him out of the road and over the curb to safety. The changing pad presented a solution. I started to slide it underneath his backside; the head shot back and took a chunk out of the pad. This rescue, it turned out, became major operation. I threw the blanket over his head and deftly slipped the pad under his hind legs and lifted him out of the road. From that point he was on his own. However, he must have made his way somewhere, because on our way home we stopped to check on him and the vicious monster was gone.

I’ve saved five other turtles over the years, but that was the only snapper. The others were painted turtles and one was a spiny soft shelled turtle. For some reason, I assume that a lost turtle is looking for a body of water, so I try to put them close to a stream or bayou.

There was one turtle that I couldn’t save. Driving home from work one day I saw what appeared to be a turtle and pulled into a nearby parking lot. However, I found that I was too late. The turtles back shell was smashed and the poor critter was already gone. Unlike television cartoons that depict turtles jumping out of their shells, their shells are actually modifications of their skin and are an integral part of their bodies. A smashed shell is almost always a death sentence. Ironically, this turtle had suffered his demise right in front of the Pasadena Animal Rescue Center.

There is usually nothing too fancy about the rescue process. Except for that one snapper, I usually just pick the lost turtle up and look into their soulful eyes as I carry them to relative safety. As I think about it, they probably don’t really care where they go. Turtles have the luxury of carrying their houses with them, most aren’t very picky about what they eat and I don’t see them as being strong on family ties.

No, wherever they are they seem content; turtles are the ultimate hobo. If they survive the first few minutes of their life; that mad dash to the safety of the water, they can grow to be the carefree vagabonds of the amphibian world. Unless, that is, they get stuck in the road. So, while you’re out driving keep your eyes open. And, if you see a hapless turtle struggling at the side of the road, pull over and give it a second chance. You won’t get paid and it is unlikely you’ll be featured on the six o’clock news, but, you will feel good about yourself and wear a smile for the rest of the day.