Snappers and Me

For any of you who vacation at a lake, this story may seem familiar, you have probably had some encounter with a snapping turtle.  My story begins at the end of a long hike around a mountain in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, when we were looking forward to the quiet peace of the rocks at the end ofAnnLake.  Although it had been brisk when I left, by the time I got there, the sheltered rocks at the end of the long narrow lake were quite warm.  After lunch it suddenly became necessary to take a nap to work off the brain fog associated with two large, chip-laden cookies.  Since Anne Lake is one of my favorite destinations, over the years I have found a suitable configuration of rocks.  There is a small ledge to accommodate the derriere and a slight hump in the rocks that fits the small of the back.  Stretched out, my feet just barely dangled in the water.

As I looked up to flick an ant off my leg, I noticed a rather large shape in the water.  I can’t really recall the next sequence of events, because quite frankly I snapped.  An enormous turtle appeared to have slithered from some sort of primordial ooze at the bottom of the lake and was making a hungry move on my toes.  The sheer repulsiveness of this creature – it hung perpendicularly in the water with its small beaky hissy mouth poised above the surface – made something snap inside me.  Screaming, I leapt up and started heaving rocks, hoping to off this vicious beast.   Now normally my attitude towards all animals is respectful tolerance, or mere avoidance towards those that may  seek to harm me.   My husband Nick was astonished to witness this display of raw aggression.

Our next trip to Ann Lake was the following spring just after the ice had cleared the lakes.  As I was sitting with my feet a respectful distance from the water, Nick noticed a large black mound at the end of the lake that looked like a small Volkswagen.  As we crept around the lake to investigate, I picked up a few rocks – just in case.  This was probably the first time I had seen a turtle fully out of the water and this was one humungous turtle sunning himself on a log.  Large warty tubercles studded his thick neck and tail, and his two squinty little eyes looked menacing.  But what really put me over the top were his fingernails.  They were long, thick, curled and yellow and must have measured at least four inches.  To me this represented the height of slovenliness, a repulsive disregard to the most basic principles of personal hygiene.  (Later I would learn that the fingernails were one of the few readily identifiably male characteristics.  Apparently they are a source of some sexual excitement, as the male scratches the female during mating.)  Even though the turtle had in no way threatened me, I readied the rock for the kill.  However, some sixth sense prompted the turtle to slump off into the water and disappear just in time.

My irrational behavior shook me.  Clearly if I was going to continue to enjoy Ann Lake and the other nearby lakes, I needed to improve my relationship with snapping turtles.  My theoretically superior brain power and evolutionary claim to the top of the food chain created two options.  The first more intellectual approach was to become a steward of my environment, to try and set aside my natural revulsion for these vile creatures.  Could I look at the snapping turtle as just another of God’s children who had as legitimate a claim as I did to share this rock atAnneLake?  I knew that this would be a challenge, but I was reminded of the saying on one of my favorite well-worn environmentally themed T-shirts:

“We save what we love,

We love what we understand,

And we understand what we are taught.”

While I did not necessarily need to learn to love snapping turtles, I did think that I should make a reasonable effort to understand them.   My second less intellectual option was to claim my right to be a predator and simply start eating snapping turtles – this at any rate would provide an acceptable rationale for trying to kill one.  However, while I am an occasional meat eater, I don’t think that I am unusual in preferring to be far removed from the carnage, the slaughterhouses and the abattoirs that ultimately produce the neatly wrapped meat in the local grocery store.   I was reminded of our young son who was briefly aghast when he first made the connection between the darling baby chicks at the children’s petting zoo, and the delicious chicken fingers on his plate.  But in no time, he, like many of us, had been able to divorce the concept of animals, death and meat.

My husband liked to fish in Anne Lake, but as a sportsman, always returning the fish to water.  This to me was almost more objectionable than actually eating the fish, since the poor fish suffered pain for the sole purpose of some sort of fleeting pleasure of the hunt that I just couldn’t understand.  At some level it seemed like an artificially magnanimous gesture to spare a life and return the fish to water.  But at the same time, I felt uncomfortable eating the fish when plentiful food was available that that did not require bloodying your hands.  Hunting friends of ours  sometimes made a big production out of serving either pheasant or venison.  But I always felt that this was just a contrivance to feel justified in killing for sport.

Clearly I was conflicted – I realized I had become a complacent NIMBY carnivore, and I needed to face the simple truth that being a meat eater required animals to die, whether by my hand or someone else’s.  The economy of this part of the Upper Peninsula, Michigan was in large part dependent on the hunting industry, either fishing, bird hunting, deer or bear, but I had never heard of anyone hunting snapping turtles.   Learning how to catch and cook a snapping turtle could truly be an entertaining novelty that might help me explore my dilemma.  However, the first step, and obviously a delaying tactic, was to find a good recipe for snapping turtle.

With the twin goals of understanding the biology of snapping turtles and how to eat one, I started on a series of phone calls, with each one leading to another, and just letting the flow of information happen.  The first stop was a phone call to the ultimate source of Upper Peninsula lore, Fred Rydholm.  Fred is something of a local legend, a lifelong resident of the UP and a marvelous story teller.  In his younger days, he often took children on camping trips, where he would simply scare the socks off of them by telling the most compelling ghost stories.   The names Asa Peabody and Windago will still bring goosebumps to the graduates of these outings.  I unfortunately missed most of those camping trips because I was afraid of his ghost stories, did not know how to successfully pee in the woods and was deathly afraid of outhouses.  Similar to my fear of the snapping turtle emerging from the primordial ooze, who knew what could emerge from the murky depths of an outhouse to nip at the soft gleaming white fleshy moons suspended above?

Fred knows everything about the UP and its surroundings, but surprisingly, he said that he had never eaten snapping turtle, but that he had heard that snapping turtles have seven different types of meat in their bodies – one that tastes like chicken, one that tastes like fish or pork, etc.  One of Fred’s first jobs back in the 1950s was to dispose of snapping turtles that were brought into the store at the local lodge.  At that time it was thought that the turtles were decimating the fish population and probably also sucking under fluffly ducklings.  Instead of killing them, Fred released the snappers in Dutch John’s swamp nearby.  Clearly Fred was no fan of wanton destruction and had become a steward in the 1950s, even before the concept had been invented.  He had recently met the folks that had bought old Dutch John’s swamp and they told him that they ate snappers regularly.  Fred had been quite amused when the owners said that their swamp was teeming with turtles.

At one point snapping turtles were served at the local lodge.  Fred tells a story of the cook who apparently did a hack job of dispatching a turtle.  A headless turtle was then seen to march across the kitchen floor, spewing blood and sending the waitresses into a panicked frenzy.  As a further testament to the turtles’ hardiness, the heart was still beating when they started to clean the turtle, the heart was still beating when they removed it from the body, and even when the heart was cut up in individual pieces, it was still beating.  Fred’s friend Indian Jim also reported that to kill turtles you must put a stake through them, otherwise they would be reincarnated.   Here was an initial clue to the snapping turtle persona – they are gritty survivors.

This story also brought home the reality that blood will be spilled.  How would you go about catching and dressing a snapper?   I did know that snapping turtles are deceptively quick, particularly on land, where people don’t realize that their neck is quite long and can actually reach back over their shell.  I did find some helpful tips from Clemson University Extension Service.  They recommended that you attach a sturdy hook to the end of a 3 foot handle and then wave the hook in front of the snapper’s face.  He will instinctually bite at the hook, at which point you turn the hook inside its mouth and pull it through the lower lip.  And now, steady yourself – the next step is to put one shoe on the turtle’s shell and stretch its head across a chopping block.  With one confident and well-placed blow you can sever the head from the neck right behind the skull.

Now I am sure that there are thousands who consider chopping a head off a routine activity of daily living, and in fact, stretching a neck across a chopping block is probably a uniquely human ritual that dates back to the first domestication of animals.  Who knows, maybe some sort of petrified chopping block, chipped and blood stained, is a routine find at an archeology dig.  But for me, comfy in the suburbs, a beheading seems to be a particularly gruesome act.  Even riflemen kill their prey at a great distance and generally don’t feel their prey squirming beneath their boot.   When the fisherman sets the hook, it is out of sight underwater and when the fish is landed, in many cases the fish simply dies of his own accord from lack of oxygen rather than having his head chopped off.

Of course, now that the beast is dead how do you dress it and how do you get at the meat?  In cartoons, this seems to be a simple matter, merely pulling the turtle’s shell over its head to reveal a creature as wrinkled, tender and vulnerable as a newborn.  In reality, it turns out that the lower portion of the shell, called the plaston, is closely adherent to thebody and must be carefully dissected off.  If you are too aggressive with the jack knife you can make the serious mistake of cutting into the intestines, which unleash an ungodly smell.  It you haven’t been totally overcome by the stench, you can then run a jackknife around the circumference of the upper shell, and you are almost home free.  You will only need to remove the skin from the neck, legs and tail and cut the meat off.  The guts are left in the shell.

Putting the death scene out of my mind, the next day I decided to skip ahead a few steps and stopped in a local bookstore to check out the cookbooks.  The following recipe was suggested by the Frugal Gourmet.  “Saw the shell into pieces and boil them with the head to make stock.  For the soup itself combine sliced raw ham, meat from three shins of beef, three knuckles of veal and two old fowls.”  This sounded more like a witch’s brew than a recipe so I moved on.  The resource librarian at the Brookfield Zoo confirmed that she too had heard there were seven different types of meat and that she had eaten snapper once before.  “We marinated it and then cooked it twice.  It was awful, it tasted like a board.”

Lester Tulley is a retired farmer living in southeast Michigan and is one of the six licensed snapper trappers in the state.  He grew up all his life eating snapping turtle and muskrat and still enjoys his wife’s snapping turtle.  She parboils it with bay leaves and then deep-fries it.  Tulley’s commercial snapping turtle business is more of a hobby.  He places baited cages in a local lake; last year he caught about thirty.  Although he says that years ago there was a real market for the meat even from restaurants, today marketing of the meat is very local – he puts up signs on his front lawn.  I made a mental note to stop at anyone’s house that has a lawn sign for snapping turtle.

Lester’s was the first enthusiastic endorsement for snapper meat I had found, but I read in a book that “Philadelphians have long appreciated the taste of snapping turtles,” so I decided to see if I could get a recipe by calling Bookbinder’s Seafood restaurant in Philly, where, surprisingly, they transferred me to the chef.  As the chef spoke I could hear pots and pans clanking in the background, could visualize steam rising and sensed an irritated note to his voice, as he thought, “who is this woman from Chicago who wants to cook a snapping turtle?  Doesn’t she know that all you really have to do is open a can?”  My explanation that I was a conflicted meat eater and that he was just one stop on a journey to reconcile my predatory instincts seemed way too obtuse, so I just feigned interest in their nationally famous soup.  In fact, Nick had been eating the canned Bookbinder snapper soup for years, but always had assumed that it contained the fish snapper, not the reptile.

This recipe was considerably more complicated than Mrs. Tulley’s.  The chef said, “Cut the head and clean the turtles. Put the entire snapping turtle with the shell and all into a big pot and poach for one hour.   Continue to cook and simmer until the meat falls off.”  At this point in the recipe, the chef said, “Are you sure you want to do this?  This is a messy job.  It takes a lot of patience and it really doesn’t smell that great.  It stinks.”  Make a mirepois (whatever that is) with carrots, celery, onion thyme and bay leaves.  Add a roux (whatever that is) and whatever seasoning moves you.  And add a lot of Madeira.”

At Bookbinder’s restaurant, they go through about 400 pounds of snapper meat a month and most of it comes fromNorth Carolina.  The commercial potential of snapping turtle meat had never occurred to me.  A call to the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources revealed that commercial snapper turtling was a thriving and totally unregulated business.  The state does require that commercial trappers buy a permit for $5, but so far nobody has bothered to buy one.  Furthermore, there are no limits to the number that can be caught in one year.  Finally, according to Alvin Breswell, a herpetologist inRaleigh,North   Carolina, nobody has ever tested the toxin accumulation in a turtle, which should be a concern for any long-lived species.

The situation inMichiganis entirely different.  Ned Fogel, a herpetologist at the Michigan DNR, told me that snapping turtles have been heavily exploited in theMidwestand their numbers have been totally decimated.  In fact trappers fromIndianaandOhiohave come toMichiganbecause snappers are no longer available in their home states.  The limits are 10 snappers per day with 50 in possession for commercial trappers, and 43 per day with 6 in possession for others.  CurrentlyMichiganis rethinking its snapping turtle policy. “I would support a total ban on harvesting,” says Fogel.  “In long-lived species the concept of a sustainable harvest is an oxymoron.”

Their perilous state piqued my interest as a potential snapping turtle steward and I gratefully (and predictably) decided to abandon my plan to be a predator.  Deep in my heart I knew that this had been a flawed strategy.  I have long thought that if you take anything to its logical extreme it becomes illogical and I felt that I had reached this point.   I remembered a work colleague who was a totally committed vegetarian and refused to wear leather.  While I could understand her funky collection of rubber and plastic shoes, I think that she went a little over the top when she insisted that her dog also be a vegetarian, making the pet refried beans and rice every night.  And just as a dog should not be a vegetarian, neither did I need to be a butcher to eat meat.

But how could I change my feeling of revulsion to ones of sympathy and compassion?  A perusal of several herpetology textbooks revealed that even among herpetologists snapping turtles are often reviled, faring poorly in comparison to the elegant sea turtles.  For example Cochran’s field guide to reptiles contains three paragraphs on the snapper.  One begins, “this large unpleasant looking turtle,” the next “the large pugnacious turtle is noted for its tendency to eat everything,” and finally “snappers are large, ugly and belligerent.”  The snapping turtle is further disadvantaged in terms of generating sympathy because it appears to be indestructible.  Fred Rydholm tells another story of a snapping turtle whose leg got caught in a trap.  Somehow, the chain became permanently enmeshed in the turtle’s flesh such that it literally was on a short leash.  But even so the turtle was able to survive by scavenging the limited waters directly in front of him.  (The turtle is omnivorous and is on of nature’s valued garbage mongers.  Another tale has it that an Indian used to find corpses of drowned bodies with the help of a snapping turtle on a leash.)

As indestructible as the snapper may appear, we only see the finished product.  While it is true that the grown turtle has few natural enemies, few survive life’s gauntlet.  “They have very hard lives as youngsters.  Skunks, herons, ravens, raccoons eat the eggs or the hatchlings.  They have very soft-shells and are very vulnerable.  The average death rate is 90 to 95%,” says Fogel.  If they do reach maturity, snappers can live for up to 75 years.  So here’s some common ground.  The mature snappers that I am seeing have been plying the waters ofAnnLakeas long as I have (under considerably more adversity) and like me, probably look forward to the warm summers with plentiful food.  They are intelligent enough to learn and remember, says Fogel.  Over the years they have learned the sound of oars in the water or recognize that a boat scraping on a rock may soon be followed by a bit of sandwich or hard boiled egg.  Do snapping turtles pose a threat to swimmers?  Ned Fogel says that they have never received a report of anyone being bitten by a snapper, aside from those who intentionally handle them.  I explained to him that over the years, hikers have developed the habit of feeding the turtles and that it was somewhat sporting to watch a snapper pulverize a hard boiled egg in one bite.  The turtles have becomes quite used to human presence.  Wasn’t this a dangerous combination?  Well no, said Fogel.  “…the only danger is to the turtles that will become too dependent on hand outs.  The large form of a swimmer in the water will scare the turtles away.  They may be more aggressive on land but the only possible danger to a swimmer would be if someone stupidly just dangled their feet in the shallow water – that would look like food to a turtle.”

So now I have come full circle.  I value the snapping turtles for themselves, and as a unique resource that may be disappearing from other Midwestern lakes.  I am not a predator, and I have no desire to kill or eat one.  I do still think that they are ugly, but that is my problem and not theirs.    And no more dangling feet.

The next year, as I again reached the rocks at Ann Lake I looked forward to seeing the snapping turtle and tipping my hat to an old friend.  And before we had finished lunch, there he was with his head poking out of the water.  Instead of reaching for a rock, I reached for my binoculars to look at him in all his revolting and tenacious glory.  As I trained my eyes on him, I spotted a fat, turgid leech affixed to his upper lip and slithering up into his nostril.  Far from menacing, the turtle’s eyes looked harassed and beseeching.  If only I had a suitable pair of yard-long tweezers.  With great tenderness and compassion,  I would have deftly plucked that leech from his nose.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

I shrieked when a primordial creature ****** my toes dangling in the water,

And I was transformed into a vicious predator thirsting for the slaughter.

But as a steward of this planet, I cannot succumb to irrational fear

And I must find a way to ****** all creatures that share my sphere.

So I spent quality time with snappers and here is what I learned –

For those who live leeches up their nose, my respect is doubly ******.









Answers;  neared, endear, earned


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