DNR worker: Why I help turtles cross the road

  • Article by: PETER M. LESCHAK
  • Updated: March 30, 2013 - 5:02 PM

We all do better when animals do better. But clearly, not everyone agrees.

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Photo: A turtle on the roadway.

Photo: file, iStockphoto.com

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A snapping turtle paused on the center line of the highway. Vehicles whizzed by. It was in front of the Department of Natural Resources forestry station where I work. Two female bicyclists stopped, alerted me to the crisis, and urged: “Do something!” Anyone who works for a natural resources agency understands that the public holds them personally responsible for all facets of Nature.

I once spent 15 minutes on the phone with an elderly woman who’d been startled by a wolf spider in her kitchen. She called the DNR for resolution. I counseled peaceful coexistence, lauding the spider as a predator of other troublesome bugs. She was silent. Sensing that arachnid-detente was unacceptable, I described a catch-and-release tactic involving a jar and a stiff sheet of paper. She was unconvinced, but didn’t want to kill the spider, either. I had no other ideas, and she was clearly disappointed in me. Perhaps with state government in general.

As for the snapping turtle, I was sympathetic, and more confident of furnishing satisfaction. I’ve often pulled over along a roadway to portage a turtle across. I understand you can safely lift a snapper by it’s alligator-like tail. Really. It infuriates them, and they will lunge and attempt to bite, but better that than road kill. So I picked up the turtle and carried it to the grass where it was apparently headed. The taxpayers were pleased.

A few days later, a friend reported that he saw a large snapper traversing another local road. He was in the right lane, the turtle in the left, and there was a pickup truck just ahead of him. He watched that driver swerve left, smash the snapper, then cut back into the right lane.

My friend was enraged — had an impulse to follow the villain, pull him over and … do what? It’s possible the murdered turtle was one I’d helped across the road some previous year, and I shared my friend’s anger.

I read of a recent study where a researcher placed a “realistic but fake small animal” on the edge of a road. He recorded that 6 percent of motorists purposely steered to hit it. I was cynically surprised the number was that low. But still: who are these people?

The kindest interpretation, resorting to sociobiology, might be that given our hunter/gatherer ancestry, we humans harbor a genetic instinct to kill animals for food. I once inadvertently achieved this with a truck. A ruffed grouse burst from cover at the margin of a rural byway, and smacked the grill before I could react. The impact was relatively dainty, so I stopped, dressed out the unfortunate bird, and brought it home for dinner. Most purposeful road-killing is, of course, not conducted and concluded that way.

Is it that some drivers, their situational awareness blurred by modern technological influences, subconsciously view driving as an extension of video gaming, with road kill a source of “points,”or a demonstration of hand-eye coordination? It’s unlikely these performers would flinch at squashing a wolf spider.

It is generally deemed barbaric to kill for sport, simply because there’s an opportunity to do so, without the motive of food, pelt or self-defense. The Latin root of “barbarian” means “stranger,” and in Webster’s Dictionary the primary definition is “an alien or foreigner,” to which the characteristics of “primitive, savage, coarse, cruel” are assigned out of xenophobic human nature, the usual fear and distrust of “the other.”

Are sport killers truly barbaric, in this sense of being strange and alien? They appear to be a minority, at least, if the 6 percent figure means anything, and though the article about the study didn’t say so, I suspect most of the slayers were adolescent males, a subspecies prone to aggression and destruction.

Back in the 1950s, I was such an outlander myself. Once, at age 5 or 6, I stomped on a leopard frog (in a cemetery, no less) in the presence of my mother. She was outraged, and vehemently shamed me. I recall bursting into tears, fervently wishing the pulped frog could be made whole. I never after crushed anything bigger than a horsefly, and usually only in self-defense. (I do admit to cases of revenge.)

If every son’s mother dramatically inflicted such shame, would the human community be less butcherly? Perhaps, and it may be already.

In his 2011 book “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, deploying current research from history, psychology, economics and sociology, built a persuasive case that the world is less violent now than ever; that as evil and spectacular as the events of the past 100 years have been (World Wars I and II, terrorism), they’re significantly eclipsed in relative body count by the wars, murders and genocides of past millennia. He says we are, for many reasons (including mothers), becoming kinder and gentler.

Last autumn, I was startled to see an unusual billboard on Hwy. 169 in the heart of the Iron Range. It was a gruesome image of a gray wolf in a trap, labeling its suffering “torture.” I know several responsible, law-abiding trappers who would take issue with that. But such a prominent (and expensive) denunciation of trapping as cruelty, in northeastern Minnesota, was unprecedented in my experience.

During the recent wolf season, fur was presumably the goal, but even our food-killing ethos has evolved. An article in the November 2012 issue of the Atlantic, entitled “Slaughterhouse Rules,” mentioned a movement for “ag-gag” bills in various state legislatures (Minnesota’s is among them).

It noted: “Iowa and Utah have already passed laws making it a crime to gain employment at a slaughterhouse for the purpose of documenting abuses and code violations … .” Securing such a job might be easy, since “some estimates put American slaughterhouses’ annual employee turnover rate at more than 100% … .”

The abattoirs — industrialized mass killing that has little resemblance to a farmer butchering a cow or pig — are so horrific that few people can stand it. “Evidently,” wrote B.R. Myers, “there is no uncruel way to kill a large and terrified animal every 12 seconds, the pace now set by industry greed.”

Meat business leaders and their legislators seem to fear that if consumers knew the details of what amounts to an animal Auschwitz, they’d turn vegetarian — exercising their “better angels.”

That resonates with me. One winter evening two years ago, I returned from a road trip. I stopped at the post office and saw a lost-dog poster on the bulletin board. I felt a twinge. It was Tug, a chocolate lab friend of mine belonging to Dale, a neighbor. Tug, an affable dog, occasionally walked the half mile from his house to visit.

At home, there were two voices on the machine. The first was Dale, inquiring whether Tug was at our place. The second was Greg, a deputy county sheriff assigned to our area, with whom I often worked in my role of local fire chief. He said he’d been dispatched the night before to a location where a young couple stopped to aid an injured chocolate lab lying in the snow. They had called 911.

Greg wanted to know if the dog sounded familiar, and he left his personal cell number. I dialed. He was off-duty, but told me that when he arrived on-scene, the dog appeared to have a broken leg (struck by a young male driver?), and the couple volunteered to transport the dog to a vet. Greg contacted his dispatcher, who arranged for an emergency veterinarian call. The couple loaded the dog into their car and headed for town. Greg described the dog. It was Tug.

“Where did they take him?” I asked.

“Don’t know. Call Don at dispatch, he handled that end.”

I did. Don checked his communications log and gave me the name of the vet. I called Dale and told him that although Tug was not at my house, I did know his whereabouts. It was among the most agreeable phone calls I’ve ever made.

Would this chain of events, a marvelous mesh of public and private resources for the sake of an injured dog, have unfolded like that in my grandparents’ youth? My gut tells me no. At best there would’ve been a mercy killing, probably with a law enforcement service revolver. A county dispatcher tracking down a veterinarian after hours? I don’t think so.

As it was, everyone involved experienced the “warm fuzzies,” and I mean that in the best possible way. I sent an e-mail to the county sheriff commending his staff, and received a pleasant reply. Some may believe all this was over the top for a dog, but recall the proverb: “He who is faithful in little is also faithful in much.”

When we take care of the animals we take care of ourselves.

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Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground,” “Letters from Side Lake” and other books.

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