Man (and Daughter) Meet Baby Snapping Turtle

Yesterday, while leaving the office on a lunch appointment, I saw something small scamper under a coworker’s pickup truck. Peering under the truck, I concluded it was probably a baby snapping turtle since it had the tail and neck of a snapper, and a bumpy shell. I wondered how the snapper got in our parking lot, 100 yards from Austin’s Lady Bird Lake and on the other side of a city street.

My work at NWF is advocating policy to connect kids and families with nature, but here I was presented with a practical and personal dilemma: to connect, or not to connect? Should I leave the turtle undisturbed, to meet his own fate as he traipsed valiantly across our parking lot, heading away from the lake—or should I intervene to try to make things better? I couldn’t resist picking him up and I rushed upstairs to show him off to my officemates and then left him in an empty candy bowl on my desk while I dashed off to my lunch date.

Upon my return the snapper was slumbering peacefully on the bottom of the bowl in full reptilian glory. A baby snapper bears a closer resemblance to a dinosaur than does an adult (IMHO). I sent an email to the office under the title ‘baby snapping turtle on my desk’ and got a reply ‘that’s not its natural habitat J’ which made me wonder why I was keeping this turtle sequestered in glass, on a faux-wooden desk top, in air conditioned space next to a humming computer. I did a little research and discovered that momma snappers lay their eggs and leave the little ones to hatch and fend for themselves, that snappers generally live longer in captivity than in the wild, but, being snappers, make pretty bad pets. I resolved to return the critter to Lady Bird Lake to meet its fate, but not until after school, when my twelve-year-old daughter could help me.

Another colleagues suggested that the tiny turtle might have been dropped by a heron or egret. I began to feel better about my interventionist role and I continued to admire the reptilian beauty of the snapper, continuing in its slumber, when I began to consider the unsettling thought that the snapper might no longer be living.

I nudged him a bit, and he responded sluggishly. I wondered if he was in need of food—should I conscript a few leaves from an office mate’s Caesar salad?—or water. I poured a teaspoon of water from a glass on my desk and the snapper sprang to life, clawing fruitlessly at the steep sides of the bowl, and I was embarrassed that in my prodding him into activity to reassure me he was still living, I was making him expend precious calories in futile activity.

A conference call completed, and school done, I jumped on my bike and headed home. My daughter joined me in the car for a short trek back to the office, peppering me with questions along the way: “How do you know it’s a snapping turtle? How did you hold it without getting bitten?” “Just wait til you see her,” I said. “Then you tell me.”

When she saw the tiny turtle, beak smaller than the tip of a pencil, she smiled and laughed at the thought of it managing to actually ‘snap’ anything. She noticed the long tail, bumpy shell, and non-retractable neck. She enthusiastically took the turtle up in her palm, and we walked toward a small creek entering Lady Bird Lake to the east of my office.

When we were in sight of the creek, my daughter called out, “It’s moving. Like it knows we are close to water. I think it can smell the water.” She bent over stream-side and opened her hand, and the turtle surged off the edge of her hand, rolling to the ground and then making a beeline across two feet of grass to water’s edge and plunged straight into the brackish water. We wandered back to my truck, marveling at the resurgence of life, the turtle asserting itself, its genetic material resuming command.

I thought back on Canadian artist Robert Bateman’s suggestion that we should ask ourselves not just what kind of world we wish to leave for our children, but what kind of children we wish to leave for our world. I wondered how we creatures impacted one another that day, how our destinies crossed, what difference it would make.