Heroes in a half shell

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Normally, environmental issues are the wheelhouse of Observer columnist Bob Mount, the man who literally wrote the book on reptiles and amphibians in the state of Alabama.

However, this week I steal a page from the Mount playbook, as I was thunderstruck by a recent study from Clemson University about how drivers react to turtles crossing roads.

Clemson student Nathan Weaver placed a rubber turtle in the middle of a busy road near the Clemson campus and set out to count the number of drivers who went out of their way to try to run over what they thought was a real turtle.

His research showed that around one in every 50 cars attempted to hit the faux turtle, including one who corrected to make sure they hit the animal when Weaver was standing less than 20 feet away.

“One hit in 50 cars is pretty significant when you consider it might take a turtle 10 minutes to cross the road,” Weaver said, in an Associated Press article.

While many of us here in the South have grown up with turtles as a somewhat ubiquitous presence, a simple study of basic biology tells us that the turtle population has begun to thin.

While the animals are known for their long life-spans, of the hundreds of eggs a female turtle might lay in her lifetime, it is not an unrealistic statistic that only a handful of those eggs will survive into adulthood themselves.

Loss of habitat and invasive predators surely account for some of the lives lost, but human beings deliberately trying to prove their mettle by running over these slow-moving creatures is like trying to prove your manhood by spotlighting deer at night: it’s unnecessary overkill and probably suggestive of a sadistic streak that may require immediate mental health attention.

It’s an attack on a largely defenseless creature whose only crime in life was wanting to cross a road  that it probably wasn’t aware existed as a threat.

On several of my amateur herpetological field trips to the Conecuh National Forest, Drs. Cooner, Gentry and I encountered several DOR snakes along the back roads of the area – DOR standing for “dead on road.”

We were saddened by these sights, but the public sentiments against snakes have been long-standing and seem destined to never change.

People see a rattlesnake and think “Danger,” even though the large Eastern diamondback we encountered was clearly more afraid of us than we were of it, as it continually tried to back away as we took photos.

An insane hatred of snakes I can maybe understand, but what did turtles ever do to you?

Unless a box turtle made its way into your prized lettuce garden and had itself a smorgasbord, I don’t see how the tiny shelled beast can garner so much hate that people would swerve out of their way to try to take one out.

I admit to swerving when I’ve seen turtles crossing the road, but it was almost always to avoid hitting them or to pull over along the side of the road to help them along in their journey.

Such behaviors were instilled in me by my father, Homer McCollum, whom I’ve always felt should have a bumper sticker on his car that said “I brake for box turtles.”

Many times in my childhood, we’d get in the old blue truck and cruise the lesser-used county roads with a “bellywasher” in hand, only to have to make a few unexpected stops along the way any time Dad saw a turtle on the road.

He explained to young Cliff that turtles were good animals that usually wouldn’t hurt you and that we should help them get across roads before harm came to them.

Young Cliff replied he knew turtles were good because the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles battled evil every Saturday morning. Dad stared at young Cliff silently and continued his ecology lecture.

Just this year, I nearly lost a toe and several fingers trying to help an egg-laden female snapping turtle try to make her way across  the old Columbus Highway. I had forgotten how much of a reach their necks can have when they feel threatened – a mistake I won’t make again.

So many of our native amphibian and reptile species have seen marked declines over the last few decades.

Their slow march toward extinction does not need to be prodded along by maniacs who feel the need to plow down these poor creatures.

I don’t know what would possess a person to want to kill a creature like that, but it would seem to me that little joy could be derived from the action.

When you hunt deer, turkeys, quail or other game, there is a fair amount of sport and skill required in the kill.

It gives one a sense of accomplishment and triumph when the mortal wound is finally achieved.

You worked hard for that body count, stalking your prey and finding the exact opportune moment to take your shots.

Hitting a turtle crossing a road surely can’t bring you that level of satisfaction.

If your bloodlust is so high that you feel the need to engage in such behaviors, maybe you ought to be using that rage to slaughter Nazis in a Call of Duty game or, once again, perhaps you ought to visit a trained mental health professional for a series of much-needed therapeutic conversations.

We owe it to ourselves and the generations who will come after us to preserve these creatures and their habitats so our children and our children’s children can see the beauties and joys of the natural world.

What Southern kids of my generation, or the ones that came before, didn’t at one time have a box turtle for a pet, some poor creature that wandered into a backyard and became a beloved pet.

By continuing to maliciously mow down these turtles, we could deprive future generations of the joys we ourselves grew up knowing.

Be kind to our slow-footed friends, our shelled compatriots.

Run and help them; don’t run over and ruin.

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