Monday, September 23, 2013

Spawn of Turtlezilla

Friday the 13th.  A day of bad luck, and terror by chainsaw.  The world ends, and the unholy creatures crawl out from their lairs to devour the innocent.  Friday the 13th: the day I met Turtlezilla, face to face.  I am grateful that I've lived to tell the tale.

Now, for most of this year, my husband has been setting up his game camera (game cam, for those in the know) all over the farm, just to see what there is and where.  Mostly he was interested in establishing a pattern for the deer over the course of the year.  But one week, way back in May, he set it up down at the pond, just to see what was going on there.

Oh, the goslings were so cute!  Lots of deer, some raccoons, and cute little painted turtles enjoying the sun.  The occasional glimpses of the heron: amazing.  It was also interesting to watch the 4'x8' raft drifting here and there in the pond, tethered by a long rope, but also drifting with the small currents and the wind.

But we also saw this...

What. The. Hell.

It is like a freaking dinosaur crawled out of the ooze and muck from the bottom the pond and ate the world.  This is a snapping turtle, supposedly.  I think it is a radioactive mutation that somehow wound up in a farm in Virginia.

We named it Turtlezilla.  

Turtlezilla quickly became the stuff of legends:
  • "The goslings are gone!  Turtlezilla must have eaten them!"  
  • "Did you hear that big splash?  It must have been Turtlezilla jumping off the raft!" 
  • "No otter this year.  Turtlezilla must have scared them off."  
  • "Wow, the remains of a dead deer.  Turtlezilla must have got him."  
  • "Don't let Amy near the pond!  Turtlezilla might eat her!" 
  • "Don't let the Boy near the pond!  Turtlezilla might eat him!"

The Husband was concerned, obviously, especially when other shots showed more than a few large turtles.  So he emailed the local CPO (Conservation Police Officer, which is code for game warden) with the photo above, asking if he could recommend anyone who deals with turtles.

See, here is the deal about snapping turtles.  They pretty much have no natural predators once they reach a certain size.  And their bites can do severe damage.  They usually only bite humans (or dogs) when they are out of water, and feel threatened.  However, while they are scavengers who will eat plant or animal matter, they are also active hunters, who will dine on other reptiles, fish, birds, and small mammals.  ( Click this link if you want a brief overview of snapping turtles.

And now enters the hero of this story:  Luke Hoge, Turtle Hunter.

Luke showed up and I took him down to the pond.  We explored the paths, and then he set up a handful of traps and promised to come back on Friday.  Friday, the 13th.

I take one to two walks around the property every day.  The first evening of the traps, I could tell immediately that one had caught something.  The bobber, (in this case a gallon size jug) was BOUNCING in the water.  BOUNCING.  

Luke returned on Friday around noon.  I asked if I could tag along when he went to check his traps.  He's a nice, friendly guy, and he seemed pleasantly surprised, if not amused, that I asked, but he was willing enough to have a dumb city girl who wore knee high boots tag along.  I grabbed my phone and took off after his truck.  (And I should note here, and there really isn't an actual road to the pond.  He widened our walking paths beautifully.)

He parked and hauled in the first trap, which was attached to the raft.  Nothing...  He waded out into the pond, armed only with a pair of gloves, and hauled in the second trap.  And I squealed like a little girl.  He'd caught not one, not two, but THREE turtles.  Two HUGE snapping turtles and a painted turtle.

For reference, that itty bitty little painted turtle, was actually about 6 inches long.  The larger of the two snapping turtles was about triple that.  He was two feet,and longer than that when you add in that monster tail and huge snapping beak.  Luke guessed that this guy was probably about 60 years old.  (I have no idea how to tell how old a turtle is.)  The female was maybe 14 inches?  He kept the two snapping turtles and released the poor painted turtle, who was trapped with two hostile animals who could not stop hissing and lunging at each other.

These are scary creatures!  Their beaks were lethal looking.  Their claws were over an inch!  And they were fearless.  Luke had to keep twisting to avoid their head and the nails.  He let me snap the pictures, and then he tossed them into the back of his truck.

Luke checked the last trap.  Two more big snapping turtles, a male and a female.  The male was not quite as large as the first guy, maybe 2-3 inches shorter.  The female was the smallest of the four.  Luke estimated her at around 9-10 inches.  They were tossed into the truck as well.

As Luke began to pack his equipment, I asked a ton of questions, which he was willing enough to answer.  Turtles have to be a minimum of 11 inches to harvest for meat.  (He planned to re-locate the smallest female.)  The oldest turtle he's ever harvested was about a 150 years old.  (Wow.)  He says they taste kinda like the dark meat on a turkey.  The hatchlings (which are vulnerable to predators) are about the size of a quarter, and they have a 10-20% survival rate.  He also said that if the turtle is in the water, there is usually no danger.  They'll mostly just slink down into the mud and keep their distance from humans and dogs.

As we finished talking, we heard an odd sound.  I followed Luke to the back of his truck, and I kid you not... One of the males was making a break for it.  He'd managed to climb up the tailgate and was preparing to jump.  

We stood back and just watched.  (Seriously, did you click on the first link?  Look at the picture of that beak, the claws.)  He jumped, tumbled over, and began making a run for the pond.  (Well, as fast as he could.  He IS still just a turtle).  Luke grabbed his tail and got him back in the truck.

So, the temperatures are already declining, and yet Luke managed to capture four good-size snapping turtles in just under 48 hours.  He believes that we've got a great habitat for them, and we are sure to have more adults.  The pond is just under a half-acre, so it is possible, especially with several other ponds nearby.

Now, I have spent a lot of time comparing the photos.  Granted, I never did get a tape-measure out while Luke had them here.  And I only have that one grainy game-cam photo of Turtlezilla.  But, based on the dimensions of that raft, and some measuring of the original images, I think the big guy we caught is not Turtlezilla.  I don't think Luke caught him.  I think Turtlezilla is still there.  

We haven't seen the last of Turtlezilla.  And he knows we came after him.

[Acknowledgment:  Notes were taken during my interview of Luke Hoge, but I was standing out next to a pond, typing his answers into my Crackberry.  I attempted to double check what I recorded by verifying information on the web, and I feel reasonably confident that I relayed the information he gave me correctly.  BUT.  If I didn't, then the mistakes are all mine, and not Luke's.  Same goes with the measurements.  I tried to record what he told me, but I may have screwed those up as well.  If any of you are super computer nerds and want access to the original images so you can prove me wrong, then leave a comment.  Lastly, Luke was amazingly polite and also pretty damn funny.  I would happily recommend him to any locals who suspect they have a snapping turtle problem.  If you would like his contact information, then contact me.  Here is a video of him working his magic.]

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