Several years ago, on a Sunday morning in early summer, Betsy burst open the front door of our house, holding the Sunday paper and wearing a curious grin. "You need to come out here and see this," she said.
I followed her outside to the driveway where she pointed to a small, greenish-brown rock sitting by itself in the middle of the concrete. The rock moved slightly, and I instantly realized I was looking at newborn snapping turtle.
You're probably like Betsy and me and you've seen the National Geographic specials and Animal Planet shows that feature sea turtle hatchlings making their way to water. It's an incredible sight as these miniature versions of their parents carefully poke from their precisely-laid shells, and methodically waddle en masse to the nearby water. It resembles a beach assault in reverse as platoon after platoon of the baby reptiles march their way into fantastic peril, completely aware of the danger, but pushing forward, nonetheless. Waiting near the water’s edge, hovering in the sky, and cruising just beyond the wash, is a plethora of predators who wait all year for this opportunity to reaffirm their place on the food chain. But, as soon as the first seagull or ghost crab grabs a turtle, Betsy usually turns the channel. I certainly don’t argue. There are a few trials of life that I'd prefer to avoid when seeking home entertainment.
So, even though we knew we weren't looking at a loggerhead turtle, and we were pretty sure our yard didn't feature ghost crabs or seagulls, we realized that this little guy sitting scared-to-death and tucked in his protective shell in our driveway didn’t stand much of a chance on his own. So, we adopted him for a while.
The plan was to keep the turtle until he was big enough to slug it out on his own. We weren't exactly sure when that would be, but figured we'd realize it when the time came. Using gravel and a bucket of rocks, I created a stream bed of sorts in a the bottom of a metal washtub. I placed a big rock or two on top of the gravel, then filled the tub with a couple-inches of fresh water, making a wet wonderland for our new “pet.” When I placed him on top of a makeshift island in the midst of his private lake, he slowly emerged from under his shell, then quickly slid below the surface.
In time, I enhanced the little guy’s surroundings with aquatic plants, various rocks and driftwood for him to root around and perch upon when he felt the need. All the while, I fed him a steady diet of crickets and earthworms culled from the backyard. He greedily gobbled them up at every opportunity.
We called him Driveway Bob.
At the end of the summer, Bob had grown enough that we felt a little better about letting him fare for it on his own, so I scooped him up (carefully; he was a snapping turtle after all) and placed him on the dashboard of my truck for the very short ride to the nearby river. After parking, I took Driveway Bob to the muddy bank, and gently released him.
He didn't wave goodbye, nor did he even bother looking back. He just went on his way. It was almost kind of sad. But, kind of happy, too.
I suspect Bob’s spent the past few years in the Stones River, rooting around on the bottom, covered in moss and all kinds of weird growths, and occasionally grabbing a fish or salamander or crawfish or whatever mistakes his tongue for something to eat.
Last week, just before leaving for work, I looked up at the end of the driveway of our new house, and a large, greenish-brown rock sat on the concrete. As I walked toward the curiously-out-of-place lump, it moved slightly, and I instantly realized I was looking at a pretty good-sized snapping turtle.
I ran back in the house, grabbed the camera and jogged up the driveway in order to take a few photos of this turtle-out-of-water. As I snapped away, the big guy seemingly posed for me, lifting his head up and standing on the tips of his claws. He didn’t hiss, and he didn’t retreat into his shell. Instead, he just looked at me. It was almost as if he recognized me. Maybe even knew me.
After a few shots, I lowered the camera and the turtle nodded its warty head before lumbering down the embankment and slide into our little pond, where he joined the frogs, fish and creepy things that lurk in our side-yard’s ecosystem.
I wonder if he still likes crickets and earthworms.