A happy ending for baby snapping turtles


Nature is wondrous, but it can also be very cruel. Spend 10 minutes watching a David Attenborough show and some poor, hapless creature is bound to become engaged in a life-or-death struggle and end up maimed or eaten. My husband, Mike, has stopped watching nature shows because his tender heart can’t take it. I agree, with the exception of programs by Attenborough. That charming British naturalist may be 92, but his curious, inquisitive, downright gleeful approach to nature never fails to enchant me.

Knowing that backstory, you’ll understand how the first words out of Mike’s mouth were, “Oh no. Don’t look,” when we ran into a large crowd staring out at the water on the north end of Lake Harriet the other day. I looked. And there on the sandy beach were three medium-sized brown turtles, side by side in a line. Necks arched upward, feet splayed out, the turtles were nearly motionless, each in a shallow hole not much bigger than they were. “They’re laying eggs,” a woman next to us whispered. Everyone was whispering, like people used to do in libraries and museums.

I know most turtles in Minnesota lay their eggs in June, but I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing them actually doing it. How amazing nature is, all those mama turtles coming up on the beach to lay their precious eggs. Out in the lake, the heads of more egg-heavy turtles were visible as they bobbed up and down in the water, probably thinking, “Well, what the hell. Those rude humans haven’t the sense to avert their eyes during this intimate moment in our lives, but this is as good a place as any to have these babies, so let’s get to it.”

But they were wrong. As heartwarming as that whole live nature show was, anyone there could see that burying eggs in the sand in the middle of a busy swimming beach was not a good plan. I watched for several minutes before realizing Mike was off talking with the lifeguards, who were taking the whole scene in from their nearby perch. My kindhearted husband wanted to know what happens next, and this is where our nature program took a grim turn. Snapping turtles lay eggs on this beach every year, a young lifeguard explained. And every year, once those mama turtles slide back into the water, the eggs they so carefully laid are quickly gobbled up by dogs, raccoons, foxes and other critters. Those that somehow manage to go uneaten are often crushed or otherwise destroyed by people who have no idea that baby turtle eggs are just beneath the sand.

Surely something can be done to keep this horrible situation from happening every summer? Mike pressed. The lifeguard shrugged his thin shoulders: Calls had been made in the past, he said, but with few exceptions, it seemed like nothing was being done to relocate or otherwise protect the eggs from harm. We walked home wondering how this could be so. It seems like efforts are made to protect all sorts of things all the time. Where are the experts? Where are the naturalists? Snapping turtles are not an endangered species. Is that enough to make rescue efforts a no-go? One thing is for certain; those mama turtles will not be helping out. Reading up on Minnesota turtles, I learned that female turtles are done with the whole mom thing once they lay their eggs. They never come back and check on them. They don’t reunite with their offspring out in the lake one day. They lay their eggs and they are Out. Of. There.

That means, if this nature program is going to have a happier ending next year, it is up to us humans to make that happen. But what do we do? So far, I’ve learned that snapping turtles usually lay 25 to 80 eggs at one time and, depending on the weather, it can take two to three months, or even longer, for some eggs to hatch. I have no idea how many turtles laid their eggs on that beach, but you’ve got to figure that hundreds were buried there. Could they be moved to a safer spot? Would it be better to have a bunch of folks take some eggs home and put them in a homemade incubator or something? Is it crazy to think that next summer, when those mama turtles come out of the lake to lay their eggs, some of us could be there, ready to help keep their babies safe? That’s the kind of nature program I’d like to see.

Meleah Maynard is a writer, editor and master gardener. For more gardening ideas and tips, visit her blog, which has been renamed Livin’ Thing.