Monday, September 19, 2011

Snap, Rattle and Roll

The first decent rain in weeks (yay!) and, surprise, who shows up? This is, I believe, a red-eared slider - but s/he was a bit too shy to pop its head far enough out that I could verify.

This is the first turtle I’ve seen this summer. Most years there are usually quite a few trundling through.
And talking turtle today because this little guy showed up yesterday gives me a chance to recycle a post from last year ...

I'm a big believer in allowing things that are alive to stay that way. Not everyone holds that same view, I realize, especially out in the countryside where my little farm is. Routinely I hear neighbors shooting at coyotes, snapping turtles, snakes, and wild hogs. Sometimes even stray dogs. I'm certainly not naive enough to think I can influence the behavior of those around me; all I can do is manage what happens on the 27-acre microcosm that I pretend to have some say over.

And what happens is this: Until an animal proves they are not just troublemakers but repeat offenders, I hold no grudges. We're all in this together, trying to survive. I've lost very dear furred and feathered friends to coyotes and owls and hawks. But we're also not overrun with mice and rats and rabbits because of those same predators. They simply don't discriminate. So I do what I can to protect my beasties in what ways I can while giving them as much freedom as possible to live relatively happy lives.

That doesn't mean I don't take an active part in trying to control the environment. Potential predators are often shepherded along through my relocation services. I've run after a number of coyotes myself and sent the dogs after several more to chase them off the property. I've broken up fights between my chickens and hawks and sent the hawks on their way. I've grabbed my trusty rake and big storage bins and moved a few nonpoisonous snakes from Point A to Point B, especially when there were young chicks or ducklings at Point A.

I did once have a crisis of conscience when I found a large rattlesnake in my backyard. With my ducks. And my dogs. When I first saw it, I didn't know it was a rattler, and I stepped back in the house and grabbed a broom and a bin to capture it. When it coiled up and raised its head in the classic pre-strike pose, I still didn't catch on because it was the first (and so far only) rattler I've seen on the property. Only when it raised its tail and shook the tip of it did I recognize it for what it was. I looked from the 4-foot snake to the 5-foot broom and decided I needed heavier artillery. For a moment, I did consider killing it. Even if it struck in self-defense, it was a big snake with plenty of venom to kill a curious duck or do serious neural damage to a 40-pound dog trying to intimidate it.

I took a deep breath and the moment of irrational panic passed. Just because this was the first time I had seen the snake didn't mean it hadn't been hanging around for awhile -- and nothing bad had happened so far. I stepped back in the house and picked up a 6-foot metal pipe and locked the dogs inside. The only plan I had was to encourage the snake to leave the yard as far from the house as possible. Beyond that, planwise, I had nothing. Luckily, the rattler was simply a creature that wanted nothing more than to be left alone to go about its business of eating small prey. I expected it to attack the pipe. It didn't. I expected it to resist being moved. It didn't. Although it did move toward the house instead of away from it, which had more to do I suspect with my lack of snake wrangling skills than any motive on its part. It disappeared through the chainlink fence and slithered under my wraparound porch.

For a couple of days after, I kept the cats inside, watched the dogs, wore shoes, and was especially careful where I stepped. But I never saw the snake again.

Oh, Snap

I was reminded of all this a few days ago when I saw a turtle crossing the front lawn. While we have our share of red-earred sliders and box turtles that hang out in the ponds and creeks, this was no big, slow, shy guy that ducks his head and feet into his shell at your approach and lets you pick him up without a fuss. No, no. This was a snapping turtle.

Snapping turtles are not made like other turtles. For one, theirs is a small shell; too small for them to pull their head and feet into. For another, these guys have sharp claws and a wicked beaked mouth with a bite like a pit bull. They're quick and they're aggressive. I have never met one yet that allowed itself to be herded easily into my relocation bin. They lunge at me and attack the rake handle, leaving gouges in the wood from their bite. Did I mention they also hiss?

This one was no different. After a bit of a pole dance to get it into the bin, I carried it off to an unused back pasture and released it there, away from my dogs and fowl. And this time I snapped a couple of pictures. For a size perspective, that's an 18-gallon bin the turtle is in. This is actually a young-ish turtle and one of the smaller ones I've relocated. It will likely wander back up to the house when it's almost twice this size and we'll go through the whole process again.

Yes, it's possible it will wander toward one of the neighbors instead and that shotgun pop I hear will mean it won't ever wander this way again. That makes me sad. But at least I know I've given it a chance that others wouldn't have. What it makes of that chance is out of my hands. I accept that. It's part of the price I pay for living in a place where I have the tremendously fulfilling opportunity to interact with nature and to relocate all the creatures that I do. As I said earlier, we're all in this together. That's something I never forget.


vkw said...

I generally agree with your philosophy, Phoenix. And, I applaud it.

However, rattlesnakes are not uncommon where I live and they manage to strike people every year and I can not imagine how many dogs and cats they claim. It's common enough here, you can get your pets vaccinated against rattlesnake venom. It is encouraged, especially if you take your dogs outside the city limits much.

Rattlesnakes are so common here that my father, while hunting, picked up two rattlers out sunning themselves on a road. He brought them home so his children could hear the rattle and recognize the snakes.

My mother was a nurse before retiring. She worked the pediatric ward at the only hospital. She came home one day to tell us a teenager was admitted who while water skiing was bit by several rattlesnakes in the water. She saw the snakes, lost control and . . . the image is terrifying to me.

That story has never left me. The teenager survived. It's a painful recovery.

Still . . . that's one animal, I'll never have pity for.

I appreciate the fact that you can and did.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Only encounter I've had with a rattler was at a rest stop in Arizona. I never actually saw the snake, but I heard it. And I backed up the way I had come in. It was somewhere around the picnic tables.

They warn of rattlesnakes on some of the trails around here. Still never saw one there.

I did find a turtle once at the end of my driveway. Walking down a suburban street in L.A. with no clue where he'd come from. There's a fish/pond pet store around the corner and I took him there. Figured they had a better shot at keeping him alive than I did.

I will say the cottonmouth my dad tried to run over with the riding mower attacked the back of it. Not sure if he was really pissed about the blades giving him a shave or they're into striking anything near them.

I'll relocate most bugs from inside to outside. I'll live with some things - like some spiders - in the house. But the ants in the house are dead as soon as I see them. I try to keep them out with cinnamon, but finding all the places to lay down some spice is hard.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@vkw: We have annual rattlesnake roundups in the region, usually accompanied by fairs in the small towns. I suspect where there's one rattler, there are at least two more. I'm sure if my beasties were ever directly threatened by anything that I could protect them from, I'd take whatever measures necessary.

What a terrible story about the teen. But I have to wonder what the answer is. I'm sure more people drown in that lake than are attacked by rattlesnakes. But people still go boating, swimming, skiing. I personally don't want to be the 1 person in a million who gets bitten, but I also play the odds every day. We all do. I think my attitude is more fatalism than anything.

@Sarah: I think even the most compassionate people have hit lists. I kill fleas and ticks and roaches and scorpions and, yes, ants that are inside. I'm sure when I mow, I kill insects that get sucked up into the blades.

It's rare that I kill anything, though, without at least thinking about the life potential of those wee beasts. I've been known to whisper, "I'm sorry," before doing the deed.

How funny about the turtle that just appeared. Are you sure there hadn't been a rain of turtles and frogs in the area recently?