Sad Turtle Stories
[Posted 9 June 2004]
I have a policy of not photographing roadkill. I see so much of it that I could spend a lot of time gathering gruesome photos that I'd never display. But I did photograph the badly injured painted turtle to the right, found in July 2003 on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota.
At the time, I was returning from a trip to British Columbia for medical purposes, and also trying to catch a few tourist attractions on the way back to give myself a break from driving and to make the trip worthwhile. One site I wanted to see was Lake Itasca in Minnesota, considered to be the source of the Mississippi River. Actually, there are so many tributaries of the Mississippi that it seemed someone had just picked one and followed it back to a small lake that does indeed start one of the Mississippi's tributaries. On the map, I noticed that Lake Itasca is located near the White Earth Indian Reservation. Years earlier, I'd heard a representative of the White Earth Indian Reservation on the radio in Los Angeles, relating how local people had shot up their sign, and other local prejudice problems (aside from the purpose of the show, which was other Indian affairs). I decided to drive through, just to see what it was like.
I didn't find any local museums, or even a tribal council or community center building -- just a bunch of residences. But I did find a badly injured painted turtle, which happened to still be alive. Either he was hit on the shoulder of the road or someone put him off to the side, but the head portion of the shell was run over. His head was still intact, and his feet would move every time I touched them. So I threw some grass in a box and took the turtle with me to see if I could find a representative of the reservation, to see what the local government would want me to do with the turtle. I ended up at the Minnesota DNR because I couldn't find a building for the reservation's government. The DNR didn't have any medical care for wildlife, but I offered to pay for a vet if a vet would look at the turtle for me. So the DNR called a few vets in the area and found one who could handle turtles. However, the vet was at lunch when I arrived and I had no need to stay, so I left my credit card number with the office staff, and my phone number with instructions. The vet finally called me back and said that the turtle had severe head & spinal cord injuries, had lost its eyes, and that he thought it'd be cruel to keep an animal alive in that condition. I agreed, and he put the turtle down, never even billed me for it. Originally I wasn't sure if the turtle could be saved, because it could move its rear legs so well. But if the damage was too severe, I didn't want its death to be days of pain and dehydration. Either way, a vet was needed to end the turtle's suffering.
Then a month ago this year, in one of the same areas mentioned on my other turtle web pages, I found a small midnight blue turtle, probably a baby. It had been run over and had died, its head crushed, so I put the body on the side of the road. But its color made me wonder if it had been a descendant of the slate blue turtle with a yellow & black underside that I and another person had removed from a road in the area. That's because it had such a bluish shell, and the texture seemed to be the same. It's possible that if the turtle had become larger, it would have faded into the slate blue of the larger turtles. I didn't take its picture, as I don't photograph roadkill.
The point of mentioning this is to encourage people to avoid hitting turtles in the roadway if possible. There isn't much that can be done for speedier animals that jump in front of your vehicle at the last second, other than brake and swerve, if safe. (One thing I've noticed is that deer do try to get out of the way every time I use my horn -- at first I wasn't sure whether I'd make it worse by honking.) But for turtles, all it takes is swerving because they're so slow. Sometimes it's not possible to determine that it's a turtle on the road until the last second, so it's best to avoid hitting any rock with that shape to it. For those who can stay alert to the animal and traffic at the same time, and can handle animals, it's ideal to pull over and take them off of the road. They're an easy animal to pick up, as they can't reach back very far to bite a person. Generally, they're on the road to either go somewhere or sun themselves, and it's best to put them at the side of the road in the direction that they were heading. Otherwise, they'll just try to cross the road again to get there. If safe, they could be put 10 feet or more off of the road, to try to prevent them from immediately coming back into the roadway.
There are some states that protect certain endangered turtle species, and one turtle breeder told me that it's illegal to handle such species. Personally, I wouldn't be able to recognize which species are endangered, and those laws were meant to prevent people from harming turtles. I doubt that any judge would fine me for trying to save an endangered turtle by taking it off of the road. In cases where a turtle's life is in danger, an individual will have to make a decision on whether they want to risk breaking one of those laws. If law enforcement is visible in the area sometimes they'll help, if not by picking up the animal, then at least by blocking the road with their vehicle until it passes.
Incidentally, the "Wisconsin Roadkill Cookbook" is published by my publisher. I had a friend who received it as a gift, and said it was a tongue-in-cheek joke cookbook.
© 2004 by Pam Rotella
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