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- Reptiles & Amphibians
Snapping turtles can make a wonderful pet
From baby to big
How do you turn down the plea of a 9 year old boy, who looks imploringly up at you with those big brown eyes and asks “Mommy, can I keep it PLEASE?” as he hands you a dirty travel mug. “What, you want to keep this yucky cup?”, of course it’s not the cup he wants, it’s what is in the bottom.
If you have ever spent any amount of time with boys, you would automatically fear what is in the bottom of the cup. With some trepidation I felt myself drawn to the cup, I had to look in it. The smile on his face told me that it might not be too bad. I weighed my options, He knew I was terrified of spiders, and it would mean a long and agonizing punishment if he brought me one of those. The cup was too small to hold a snake. There was no lid on the cup so whatever it was certainly wouldn’t jump out at me. So I took the cup, held my breath and at arms length looked into the bottom.
“What the heck?”, it was dark in the cup and whatever it was, was very small. I had to bring it closer to see. It was a very tiny turtle, about the size of a half dollar. Well wasn’t this just about the cutest little thing I ever seen? Because of it's size, I determined that he must have been just born/hatched. I knew a little about turtles from books. This wasn’t a painted turtle for sure. When I asked him where he found it he told me in the creek. Ok, so now I knew it was a water turtle. Hmm, what to do with it?
I had a small 5 gallon aquarium that wasn’t in use at the moment, so with some pretty rocks and about 2 inches of water, we set it up. We went to the store bought some turtle food, put the turtle in the tank fed it and waited. After eating a few pieces of the food, the turtle promptly buried itself in the rocks. Well this was fun. Seriously, how much fun was this going to be? My active boy was going to get bored with this very quickly.
Several months passed, the tank was out of the way and every now and then I checked for any sort of rotten smell. The turtle was buried so I couldn’t see it. Out of site, out of mind sort of thing, so it was fairly forgotten.
One day, out of the blue, the turtle appeared on top of the rocks, a
much larger turtle than had went under. We seriously looked at the
turtle now, since you could see it much better. It had a fairly tall
ridge on it’s shell, and it sort of snapped when putting your finger
near it’s mouth. It certainly looked like a snapping turtle. This could
be fun, most definitely not boring.
I added more water to the tank, put the rocks to one side, so there was a swimming area and a resting area. I had to go back to the store because in the months of it’s hiding somehow we managed to lose the food. Either the dog ate it, or one of the kids ate it, either way it was gone and it looked hungry! I guess we were going to have a pet turtle after all.
It grew quickly and very soon we needed a larger tank, this time we went for the 10 gallon. We added even more water and bought an ‘in tank’ filtration system. Ok, so it wasn’t a system, it was one of those cheap filters that you have to set in the bottom and hope it doesn’t float to the top, if it does then you have to weigh it down with rocks.
By this time we had decided on a name, we in good conscience couldn’t keep calling it turtle. Since we weren’t sure if it was a boy or girl we gave it a gender neutral name, Jaws. It liked snapping at fingers, we thought that name seemed appropriate.
Jaws continued to grow, within 6 months of getting the 10 gallon tank, it was time for a new one. This time we went bigger. We got a 29 gallon tank. That should last a while.
My husband felt that we should be feeding Jaws live food, so off to the fish store we went. We would get a few minnows or small feeder fish at a time. Jaws seemed to love his new home, he had good crunchy food, squishy live food, clean water and plenty of eyeballs watching him.
We kept a constant vigil on his tank, believe me a turtle’s tank can get real stinky, real fast. At least once a week I had to scrub the tank. During this time the filter started acting up so my husband, being the good ‘fixer-upper’ he is, tried looking at it. I’m not sure exactly what he was doing with it, but it involved a steak knife. He had the filter out of the tank, turning it this way and that way, the steak knife moving in directions I didn’t think possible. Next thing I knew, he was swearing a colorful stream of words. Somewhere along the line the steak knife went into the callous of his hand. Oops. Since it was such a tough callous there was no blood, but we rinsed it anyway.
His hand remained sore for a couple of weeks and the cut never healed at all, so it was still open. He got a side job cleaning off some property, removing brush and things like that. His hands of course got really dirty. Within 2 days after his job was finished there seemed to be some sort of pocket in the area of the callous. It began to hurt a lot. After a few days of pain steadily getting worse, we noticed red streaks running up his arm. Oh boy. Yeah we knew what that meant, blood poisoning. So off to the emergency room he went. The Doctor said it was reptile poisoning and he would need some shots. He had 9 shots the first day and 8 the next. My husband, the human pincushion. He was told to take care when cleaning out the turtle tank form now on and for gosh sake, don’t use a steak knife!
From that point on after handling the turtle or any of the things inside the tank, we made sure to wash our hands very well. We were quick learners if nothing else.
By this time Jaws had become quite a conversation piece within our home. Whenever we had guests they had to watch Jaws for a while to see what he/she would do. We still weren’t sure if Jaws was a boy or girl. My Mom had a friend who owned a bait shop so from time to time Mom would bring over some treats for Jaws. One time she brought 3 dozen ‘fats heads’, 3 dozen!! That’s a lot of fish. Jaws amused her for a while with his/her antics and these fish. Apparently Jaws didn’t like being over run with so many to share the tank, he went on a killing spree. Some he ate, others he just killed for the sport of it. Yuck. I had some serious scooping to do. Mom decided then that 3 dozen was just too many at once. We had many people who seemed to think we were 'growing' our own food. I can't count the number of times I heard "There are 7 different kinds of meat in a turtle" or "Are you going to use the shell as a soup bowl?" I mean really!! This was our pet, why on earth would anyone say such a thing! We got a lot of those comments and learned to brush it off.
We moved, after having Jaws for about 3 years, so of course Jaws had to come with us. He was still growing, and had just about grown out of this tank. It was time to buy a new one. We went to a specialty fish store and ordered a much bigger one, this time it was a ’breeder’ tank, 50 gallons but a lot wider than normal. Most tanks are about 12 to 15 inches wide and with Jaws head, body and tail he was well over the 12 inch mark. This tank was 3 feet long and 2 feet wide, plenty of room for growth, or so it seemed.
The new neighbors loved coming over to visit, and were quite surprised when the turtle in the tank suddenly moved. Most had thought it was just a decoration. I even had kids coming to the door offering me quarters to look at our ‘pet’. Of course I did not take the money, I was to find out later, my own kids were the ones that were trying to charge admission for a peek.
Jaws quickly grew into his new tank, I had no idea what size tank we would need when he grew out of this one. I had up graded to a decent filter by this time, it was on the outside of the tank much easier to clean.
When cleaning the tank now I would let Jaws roam around the house. She would go under furniture, tables and chairs. By now we had discovered that Jaws like to have her shell scratched by fingers. If you ‘tickled’ her she would raise up to her full height and do this little dance. It was fun to watch and she seemed to enjoy it. On one of her little outings, roaming the house, she wandered under my husbands recliner while he was sitting in it. She raised up and almost dumped him out of it, this was getting to be a big turtle!
I thought I might try to take her for a walk in the neighborhood, on a leash. Now I’m no physics major so I don’t quite understand how this happens, but something about ‘center of gravity’ was happening while we walked. She was going so fast, I was almost being dragged. Note to self “Never try to walk a turtle on a leash”.
We no longer fed her turtle food, she was totally living on live food by now. It was nearing spring and it seemed like I was cleaning her tank at least every other day. There was a strong odor and somehow the water was being blackened by a spray she was emitting. We had her for a good 4 years, I wondered if it was breeding time for turtles.
I had done my research and found that she could in all actuality reach 84 pounds in captivity. We went to an aquarium and seen a live snapping turtle, that one was huge. There was no way possible I could have a tank that large in my home, it was an entire wall!!
Jaws’ shell was now the size of a dinner plate, her neck would stretch as far as her tail was long. She/he was getting ‘snappy’, we had small children in the house and though they were raised around her, we really couldn’t take any chances. Reptiles can truly never be tamed. They always seem to retain their wild side.
Time for Letting Go
It was discussed with my husband and son what we should do with her. We just couldn’t let her go anywhere, she was a family pet. We had seen too many turtles that were squished on the road, so her safety was utmost in our minds. I called around to different places to see who would accept her. Nearby was a state park, I called them to ask if they would mind if we released her into one of their lakes. They listened to my story of how we came to have Jaws and decided that their land would be a perfect place for Jaws release.
The kids wanted to mark her shell to let the world know she had been cared for. I had decided that no we would not do that. After all the scratching she seemed to enjoy, marking her shell would probably be painful. Fingernail polish would just be tacky. Not only that, someone might try to take her home, thinking she was tame. We would leave well enough alone, and just know that we did our best by her. We had saved her from the fate of many newborn turtles, being eaten by birds. That was the best we could do for her.
The day came when it was time, we had decided to make it a family affair, with all members present. We brought our video camera to capture this for our memories. We went to one of the lakes that were in the back, where there was less vehicle traffic. And of course fewer people.
As you can imagine having such a large animal you would need something to carry it in, we used our cooler, it was a little cramped, but for a short time. We took her/him to the waters edge and put her on the ground, and waited. She walked into the water swam around a little, came back to the shore, sat there for a few minutes looking at us. Swam out a little farther, came back yet again. She sat there, it seemed contemplating us for a short time, trying to decide what to do. Finally, slowly she turned and swam out for the last time. She disappeared quite fast, and soon was out of our site. We remained there for some time, just incase she returned. We wanted her to be released, but we didn’t want to scare her. She never came back to the shore.
Since we had such a wonderful experience with Jaws, we gained a new respect for wildlife. Now as we are traveling the roadways, if we should happen along a turtle trying to cross the road, we stop and give assistance, sometimes stopping traffic to assist in the crossing. Many times we come across snapping turtles, those are a little tricky in maneuvering. We know that their neck is as long as their tail and can turn quite fast and get the finger of the unwary. If you should be traveling the roads and see a vehicle stopped for no apparent reason, give way please, it could be me trying to help a turtle cross the road.