Nature by design
My Gamer Girl and I have (actually had) a small water feature/fountain/pond in a garden directly below our bedroom window. When kept up, it was pretty and peaceful and, you know, garden-y, and the burbling sonic moire from the fountain worked to counteract traffic noise.
But it was maintenance intensive, and when not utterly up-to-date, unruly. Which of course we could avoid with attention and elbow grease. But there was another problem that we simply could not get around: tree frogs.
When one tree frog appeared, it seemed both rustic and appropriate, as if Mother Nature was blessing our little patch of work and making it partly her own. Cool.
Cue forward several years, when dozens of tree frogs are making the pond home. Not so cool. These little buggers are LOUD! It is difficult to describe if you haven’t encountered it yourself. Tiny little frogs, they look harmless enough, but they are literally loud enough to cause pain in your ears. Even when your windows are closed, right through the glass and everything, seriously, and painfully loud.
Also, directly beneath our bedroom window! Permanently-closed windows are obviously not ideal. On the other hand, sleep is ideal, yet impossible amidst the croaking cacophony. We tried yelling, we tried turning lights on them, we tried everything we could imagine. Nothing worked.
Then suddenly a few weeks ago the frogs went silent. Not quieter, silent. Totally. WTF?
Tiny Mutant Ninja Turtle
Several years ago, my sister went camping along the Arkansas river near the Royal Gorge with her son and daughter. They encountered, and captured, a tiny turtle. They brought him home, and he took up residence in my nephew’s bedroom where he was promptly neglected.
Tiny, very hungry, yet amazingly durable, he somehow survived an entire year in this purgatory, until my sister decided it was cruelty and had to stop. I’m really not sure how I got involved in this, but I did, and she offered him (her? it?) to me.
And so we acquired a snapping turtle. When we got him, he was exactly the same size he had been when my nephew first found him: about the size of a 50-cent piece, shell a little larger than a quarter. He hadn’t grown at all. Very small, very cute.
Minn of the Mississippi
When I was a kid, one of my first books ever was a history of the Mississippi River from the point of view of a snapping turtle. Minn of the Mississippi by Holling Clancy Holling. I remember it still, not every detail of course, but the turtle was treated very gently by the author. Not the hero of the story, she was just a turtle, the author didn’t humanize her or cartoon her up, but Minn was the focal point of the story.
She was born, and struggled to survive, losing one foot to a predator while trying to cross from the egg nest where she hatched to the safety of the river. Later in life, someone captured her momentarily and carved “Minn” on her shell, I don’t remember why or if it was even explained why the kid needed to do that, but whatever, it just was, and so the turtle became “Minn”.
Minn seemed cute and attractive, persevering against the odds, driven by nature to survive and reproduce, prevailing in the end through continuously striving.
I was too young to understand that authors lie.
We named the new turtle “Jurassic Bob” because he looked like a tiny little dinosaur. He had bony ridges up his tail like a Stegosaurus, his shell was ridged and pointed like an Ankylosaurus, his feet were clawed, he was covered in green and brown pebbly scales, he even had horns and spikes growing out of his chin.
So tiny, so dinosaur like, so fierce-looking, our own Minn of the Mississippi. Except I never expected him to look so … prehistoric. He really did look like a tiny turtle-o-saur.
We gave him a new, larger aquarium. We read all about what he needed in the way of light and water/versus/surface area and what he liked to eat.
We noticed that owning a snapping turtle was illegal in a some states. What was up with that? But hey, somewhere it is illegal to carry an ice cream cone in your pocket. Goofy laws are goofy, right?
Nothing to worry about, right?
The Overnight Massacre
One of the things we read was that snappers enjoy live goldfish. The turtle may look sedentary but apparently is quite the fisher-turtle. The source recommended buying a dozen or two and letting the turtle eat them over time.
Okay. It seemed like a nice, low maintenance way to feed him, pop in some fish and he’s good for a month. So we bought two dozen goldfish, added some extra water to the aquarium so there would be room for everything, fed the fish with our newly-acquired goldfish food, and went to bed.
The next morning they were all gone. All of them. 24 goldfish.
Clearly Jurassic Bob had some hunger issues after a year in my nephew’s care! 24 fish! Sizable healthy ones, too! Each of the fish was probably one-third the body weight of the turtle; he ate at least eight times his mass overnight! How? Where were the bones? Did he digest them that fast? He’d have to wouldn’t he? In order to have room to eat another?
Oh. My. God.
Just in case that was not shocking enough, over the next week he doubled in size.
I know you are reading this and thinking I am exaggerating. Or perhaps you are kind, and believe I am merely misremembering, that time has buffed and fuzzed the events in my head until they come out staggeringly unbelievable like this. But I assure you, this is not exaggerated in any way. The events were quite shocking and memorable. It really was 24 fish, overnight, and he really did double in size in one week.
It may go without saying, but Jurassic Bob was never again given live fish.
What had we gotten ourselves into?
Danger Will Robinson danger!
From a commercial website advertising humane pest and wildlife solutions:
The biggest threat posed to humans by snapping turtles is from their potential to bite and scratch during human-turtle interactions. Snappers are usually not aggressive if encountered in the water, but they tend to become belligerent when encountered on land and will hiss when it feels threatened.
Under no circumstances should you attempt to pick up a snapping turtle; they have an extremely flexible neck capable of reaching around and biting the hands of the person holding them, even if they are being held by the shell. In fact, snappers can reach their heads all the way to their hind legs to bite. Their jaws are extraordinarily powerful and capable of completely severing a human finger.
In addition to the danger posed by their bite, the claws of the snapping turtle are quite sharp and can lacerate the flesh of a person attempting to handle them. One reason put forward for why snappers are so belligerent is because, unlike other turtles, they are too big to hide inside their own shell. Their powerful bite, sharp claws and aggressive attitude compensate for this deficiency.
Oh, it’s you Bob
We settled into a routine. He got special turtle pellets. We looked after him and kept him clean. He swam around and looked menacingly cool.
But still he was smallish, maybe three inches head to tail, and still a turtle. Not going anywhere in a hurry. You could lift him out of the aquarium, give everything a good cleaning and put him back before he got up a head of steam and could get anywhere.
Something we researched told us that he would grow into whatever container we used as his housing, but stop when he got as big as his housing would support. So we left him in the twenty-gallon aquarium and naively expected that would keep him at a cute and fun size.
I have to be careful when I say “fun”. He was not cuddly. He would lunge at anyone who got close enough to his domain that he could see them through the glass. He always – always – tried to bite your fingers or elbows or whatever you let get close to him when you fed him, or cleaned his home, or cleaned him.
The good part about his getting larger was that it let us get a better look at him, in detail. And he had a lot of detail. Every surface was scaled or spiked or armored, or all three.
Very interesting to look at. So monstrous. So Jurassic. Something you could never see without having the turtle live in your house. Pictures simply do not properly document the savagery and ancientness that went into the design of this thing. Our own mini-monster, on display for our personal viewing convenience.
One unexpected thing though – he didn’t actually stop growing.
In the mid 90’s, Canadian geese and (reportedly) small dogs began showing up dismembered and half-eaten near a pond in Washington Park, an urban park in Denver, Colorado. Rumors flew. Eventually, it became common knowledge that a caiman must have somehow found it’s way to the pond and taken up residence.
A caiman is like an alligator, but a little smaller, and apparently a lot meaner.
Then dogs started disappearing altogether. Panic ensued. They even drained the pond in an attempt to find the monster. A futile attempt. How could a caiman be so crafty?
No one ever saw the caiman, but really, what else could it be? Look at the damage it is causing! The legends grew.
It was another full year before the mystery was solved: not a caiman at all, it was just a couple of large snapping turtles.
“Just” snapping turtles.
Time passed and Jurassic Bob just kept getting larger. It became painful to see him in his now-tiny appearing aquarium, and he got upgraded digs, eventually upgrading all the way to a 55-gallon aquarium.
By now he was about a foot from head to toe, and his tank gave off a musky odor, even when freshly cleaned, that meant no one in the house would have him in their room. Nor was he allowed in the major public spaces. No, only my office was suitable. Not sure exactly how that came to be, but it did, and so we moved in together.
Bob found himself on top of some of my shelving and he and I began a strained love/hate relationship. I loved looking at him, he just got more and more monstrous as time passed. But I hated cleaning him. Partly because I am lazy and would rather do anything than chores, but to be fair, it was largely because cleaning him had become so difficult.
I had to respect his ability to do damage. It made the bi-weekly cleaning not only smelly but also hazardous. I would draft whichever son was unlucky enough to be in the house at the time and together we would (carefully!) carry the whole 55-gallon aquarium outside. Slowly tipping it, we’d herd Jurassic Bob out one end and into a pillow case. Then I’d scrub everything twice, only the most serious of scrubbings would keep the smell manageable, then hose off Bob directly through the open end of the pillow case.
Then the aquarium would go back, be refilled with sand and rocks and water, and eventually Bob. The tank should probably have been cleaned weekly, but no, too difficult. Once every couple of weeks or so would have to do. Incense helped in-between cleanings.
All the while, he just kept on growing.
If you google “snapping turtle bite” you will be exposed to the world of myths and legend. Also truths, scary truths. While it is true that a biting turtle will tend to hold on in a vise-like deathgrip until it bites all the way through, it is not true that they will “only let go if they hear thunder“.
Cutting off the turtle head is also not advisable, as it may cause the turtle’s jaws to contract and become more difficult to remove. The best way is to hold the turtle underwater.
Apparently, remaining calm also helps.
Be careful hitting that last link. The picture is gruesome.
Instinct is everything
Jurassic Bob was a large, continuously-growing, balled up bunch of killer instinct. There was never the slightest evidence of any sort of mental process. Just a never-ending series of attempts to maim and eat whatever came in reach.
In all the years that we had him, he never learned that glass was impermeable. He never stopped struggling when we tried to clean him. He never stopped trying to bite whoever was feeding him.
And he never stopped growing.
Eventually he outgrew every aquarium. We bought a rigid plastic pond liner, the kind that one makes into a garden water feature. I built a heavy wire-gridded top for the liner, and Bob moved in. His new larger surroundings seemed to spur another growth spurt, and soon Bob’s shell was more than a foot across. He weighed at least 20 pounds, maybe 30, maybe 50. Who knows, he was never going to hold still to be weighed.
Owning Bob became a burden. A dangerous burden that was constantly trying to eat us. But what does one do with a 30lb snapping turtle? You can’t just call up the animal shelter and drop him off. There is no “giant snapping turtle rescue” organization, or at least as far as I know.
We had a monster in our backyard. One we fed and occasionally hosed off. One that was able to periodically provide moments of terror but no longer provided any sort of enjoyment.
Then one day we had a heavy thunderstorm. Very heavy rains, heavy enough to fill the pond, and apparently, enabling Bob to push past the weighted lid. He escaped.
Bob solved the problem of his existence all by himself. My youngest son swears he saw Bob a couple of days later, basking in the neighborhood pond. Did he? I hope so, and I hope Bob found somewhere he could eat and grow and terrorize to his turtle heart contentment.
Happy life to you Jurassic Bob, thanks for being so cool-looking, and never quite managing to eat any parts of me in spite of your never-ending efforts.
Back in the present day, my Gamer Girl and I are trying to permanently remedy the tree frog problem. We’ve decided that even though it is so pretty, and the fountain burble so relaxing, in spite of all that, having a water feature under the bedroom window is a bad idea.
It takes a couple of days to get the heavier rocks moved away, the floating mass of swamp grass pulled out and relocated, and the fountain plumbing and mechanism pulled out and disassembled. But eventually, the pond itself is bare and isolated, a hole in the ground with a thick flexible plastic liner, still holding a few inches of water.
“Geoff!” I am somewhere else in the yard, but not for long, my Gamer Girl is shouting, “something moved!”
Did it? The remaining water in the pond is brown and opaque. There could be anything in there. I get a stick and start prodding. Two different kinds of venomous snakes live around here, one cannot be too careful.
Something is in there. But it is not a snake. It is worse. It is a snapper. Jurassic Bob Junior.
How the hell did he get in there? Where did he come from? I am half a mile away from the nearest water. It is all very perplexing.
So tiny! So monstrous! So cute!
Carefully I sweep him (her? it?) up in a shovel and with heavily-gloved hand, march him off that half-mile to the nearest swamp.
All the way there, the tiny terror looks at me, blinking, threatening with it’s tiny jaws, looking so cute and tiny and pocket-monstrous. So cute!
But I know better. I know where all the tree frogs went. Into this little guy’s bottomless maw. It is not cute. It is a monster just waiting to happen. And this time it is not going to happen to me.
I dump it in the swamp and walk away. There are no regrets. None.
Minn of the Mississippi? My ass.
🙂 😀 🙂