Where there Snapper Meets the Road


Snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina, have been around a long, long, long time. There were snappers crawling around before dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Anything with this much life history (at least 200 million years!) deserves a lot of respect and at times, a little helping hand.This is the time of year in Maine when you may encounter them in the roadway. Snappers are drawn to the warm sand on the roadside. To them, it seems like a great place to lay their eggs. Regardless of how potentially successful a nest full of eggs on the side of a road like of Rt. 27 can be, a very high percentage of turtles lose their lives when hit by vehicles while crossing to or from their nesting areas.

A couple of springs ago, I saw a nice sized one a few feet into Rt 15 between Bangor and Dover-Foxcroft. I pulled over into a safe area and was about the exit my car when I saw some guy in a pickup actually swerve in order to run over and kill it! To say I was pissed is an understatement. As I followed the guy down the road with evil intentions on my mind (I can usually cool off in less than 10 minutes…) I noticed that he had both B.A.S.S. and S.A.M. stickers in his rear window. Both of these organizations proclaim to be good stewards of the environment, but they cannot and do not police the intelligence of their members. Long-story-short…I was surprised this guy was a member of B.A.S.S.

There are times when I actually do get to remove them from the road when I see them. This is not an easy task. For starters, in many cases, it isn’t obvious whether they are coming or going. I usually just place them back in or near the water. Picking them up can be a nerve-wracking event-for me AND the turtle. If you are inclined to give these glorious creatures a lift, I’ll tell you how I do it. I’m not a herpetologist, I just play one on the roadside, so remember-as they say...handle these creatures at your own risk.

First-thing’s-first. You’ve got to stay away from its jaws. Duh. Even as careful as I am, I’ve been close to being bitten a few times. I can imagine that if one of these things were to get any part of my body in its mouth, bad times would follow. I tried to move one away from a pond with a big fishing net at a salmon farm I used to work at once. I started by merely placing the end of this aluminum pole near its mouth and CLANG! I was shocked at how fast the thing bit it and the impression it made in the metal. The ferocity of the bite was clearly transmitted up the end of the net-it still makes me cringe to this day.

Another bit of advance warning; They can move their necks one half to 2/3 the length of their body behind them. Yes. Scary, I know. With a “smaller one” (about the size of a frisbee or less), picking them up by the tail is probably the easiest way to move them. You’ve got to be committed though! As soon as you grab on, you’ll find out how powerful they are, it is unbelievable. Remember to hold them away from your body or you could find that the weird sensation you are feeling is a snapper holding your leg for you.

If you are lucky enough (gulp!) to encounter one of the really big ones (sometimes the size of a car tire it seems) picking them up by the tail can actually injure them and should be avoided. Since saving them is the goal, this won’t do. I’ve read that the best thing to do is to pick them up with a snow shovel! On the off chance you are driving down the road with one, I’d give this a try. If you are like me you don’t want to even think about show shovels after April…so the second choice is to pick them up by the rear legs. Since they are bound to be about as thick as your wrists, this may be a scary experience too. I used to pick them up by the shell, as far towards the back as possible, but have had too many close calls doing this. I’ve done things like let them grab onto a stick and drag them off the road and, when I can get them to move, just kind of herding them along. Remember, use caution. You don’t want to: A. get bit, B. get hit or C. cause an accident on the roadside.

Another great thing to remember is to wash your hands after handling any turtle. Consider them akin to an alien life form. You never know what kind of funk is growing on an 87 year old reptile that lives in a swamp. I had a friend that became very ill after handling a snapper that had recently emerged from its' hibernation on the bottom of a lake...then again....he's from New Jersey so one never knows where he picked up "mad turtle disease" as we called it....and I wonder what he gave the turtle...

So….If I drive by and see you assisting a turtle I’ll beep. If I see you attached to one I’ll wince and probably stop to help you out and/or take some pictures. If I see you hit one on purpose I’ll try to not catch up to you for at least 11 minutes.