I am a nature nerd and one of the things that I long to see more than anything when I am out exploring the woods are woodland turtles.
Woodland turtles have become scarce over the last few decades due to habitat loss, collisions with automobiles, and the pet trade. The two main woodland turtles found in the northeast are the eastern box turtle and the wood turtle, both of which are listed as species of concern on the MA endangered species list.
On a recent trip to Myrtle Beach, I spent one morning walking in the woods by a freshwater lake that sits upland from the dunes. I stopped abruptly when I spotted the beautiful yellow and brown patterned carapace of an eastern box turtle. It was sitting by a path next to a gleaming fish about 5-6″ in length. The turtle had evidently become the beneficiary of an osprey’s hunt, dropped on the ground from above.
Box turtles are not particularly disturbed by the presence of humans (which is why they are popular in the pet trade), but I kept a respectful distance and sat down on a log to watch. With a seemingly great amount of patience, the turtle began to rip off bits of fish with it’s beak-like cusp. (Turtles do not have teeth.) When the fish had been about 1/3 ingested, the turtle grasped it in its mouth and began to propel itself incrementally by digging earnestly through the leaf litter. In this manner, it dragged the fish under its belly and into the brush a few feet away to ensure that any interlopers such as myself would not try to steal it.
A couple of days after I saw the box turtle, I was with a group of people, one of whom was a man who had just encountered a lady “relocating” a completely different box turtle that she found near a road. Everyone in the group cheerfully agreed that the box turtle would love his new home in the woods. Except me. My heart sank and I felt sick to my stomach. Being a wildlife rehabilitator, I know that turtles do not fare well when relocated.
Box turtles live their whole lives in the area of about 1 square mile. If they are relocated elsewhere, more often than not, they try to find their way back home (making them vulnerable to more road crossings). If they can’t find their way home, they wander listlessly, stop eating, and die. Instead of relocating a turtle, it should simply be helped across the road in the direction it is heading.
Sometimes I find myself at a loss of what to say or do in situations like this. I am crushed by the knowledge of the suffering that an already imperiled animal will face. Furthermore, nobody wants to be a Debbie Downer, especially among people who genuinely care and want to help wildlife. I completely understand that this woman was doing what she thought was best to help this turtle avoid getting hit by a car. It was clearly too late for me to intervene. And I certainly don’t want to berate the kind-hearted people who want to help. The best I could do was share this turtle-knowledge in the kindest, warmest way possible for future reference.
It’s a tough world out there for our wild friends. It seems to be shrinking by the minute as habitats get swallowed up and destroyed for homes, shopping centers, farmland, livestock grazing, and roads. Well-intentioned people think that moving animals from place to place is a viable and humane solution, but alas, it is not.
I often listen to the roar of humanity ripping through the natural soundscape. Blasts from machinery make the bird calls and squirrel chatter seem so fragile and small. It seems to me that humans have become akin to an infestation of termites and that before too long, all that will be left is a pile of dust.
But, we too, are a part of this natural world. And until I turn to dust along with everything else, I will do my best to love and respect my wild brethren.