The other day I was driving along one of those little two-lane black-tops that snake through the Ozarks. I take these routes whenever I have a choice. There’s a lot less traffic, a lot more scenery and you sometimes see things that you’d miss on the bigger roads. Like last week when I crested a hill and what I saw coming at me near the center-line in the other lane, was a snapping turtle.
Not driving a car, of course, this was a snapping turtle so young he couldn’t have gotten a license even if he could have reached the pedals. He was a long way from any body of water that I could see, and he was dragging himself along laboriously as if he’d gone a long way and had a long way yet to go. Snapping turtles being so popular as they are, I wondered how much longer he would make it before someone ran him over.
To be perfectly honest with you, for a fraction of a second, I considered letting my wheels drift over to do away with him myself. I didn’t though, because killing things, even something as apparently void of any redeeming grace as a snapping turtle, bums me out.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no animal-rights advocate or anything. I wear leather shoes, often eat meat, and rarely leave home without a few ostrich plumes in my hair. I support all these things because they provide employment for a bunch of animals that would otherwise be homeless and starving.
Before you start typing your hate mail, let me point out that this cold and bitter world is full of people who are even worse than me, if you can feature that. Worse, at least, when it comes to snapping turtles, snakes, spiders, and other things you’d as soon not find between the sheets of your bed.
I once knew a woman who took in stray animals. Her house looked (and smelled) like a veterinary clinic because of all the wounded creatures she was nursing back to health. This same gentle soul, however, would risk life and limb swerving across the highway to wipe out a snapping turtle if she saw one in the road.
She said she couldn’t think of any useful purpose that the alligator snapper serves on this earth, but frankly I think that if snapping turtles were cute and furry instead of hideous and slimy, she’d have felt differently. I’ll bet there are all sorts of useful and important contributions that snapping turtles make BESIDES swallowing up yellow, fuzzy, baby duckies, but who cares when they look so monstrous?
Well, the truth is, that our cold-blooded friends just don’t get no respect. Just because you’ve got jaws like a steel bear trap, or long fangs that inject deadly venom, nobody wants to cuddle with you.
Homo sapiens is such a shallow species.
That reminds me of a story my father used to tell.
This story was about my father’s pal, Fred. Among many other failings, Fred was terrified of snakes, but, like a lot of people, he didn’t really have the good judgment to just stay away from them. Instead, like a lot of people, Fred hated things that he was afraid of and saw it as his job to see that anything he was afraid of didn’t live very long.
On the occasion of this story, my father and Fred had been doing some work in our upper meadow and were headed back to the house for lunch. It was one of those wonderful, early-spring days when life is at its finest; when every living creature wants to be out enjoying it, even those that normally prefer the cool dampness under a large rock or an old piece of barn roofing.
The birds were singing, the squirrels were frolicking, God was in his heaven, and my father and Fred were driving the truck through the Old Mahan Field when suddenly, Fred’s plump and normally quite pliable body went rigid.
“Stop the truck!” he demanded in a tense, angry voice.
My father stopped. Fred got out and cautiously walked back a few yards to where an enormous copperhead was coiled in the ditch sunning himself.
This thing was a real monster. As big around as my wrist and five or six feet long, he lay there completely motionless save for the occasional dart of his forked tongue, or for the slow, nearly imperceptible movement of the narrow slits of his pupils as he kept a vigil for something warm, stupid, and small enough to swallow.
Fred towered above him seething with hate. He glared down at the snake.
The snake glared back up at Fred, who only met two of the serpent’s criteria.
Without a word, Fred turned and strode seriously back to the truck (or as seriously, at least, as a five-foot-eight, 300-pound man in overalls and no shirt can stride).
Peering into the bed of the truck, he searched for a weapon suitable for dispatching this slithering Satan back to Hell.
What he found was a claw hammer.
As my father watched with detachment from the sidelines, Fred grasped the wooden handle purposefully and came walking slowly back to where the copperhead lay coiled. He moved slowly, intent on what he was about to do, as he muttered curses and vile epithets under his breath.
Dad took out a handkerchief and cleaned his glasses.
Fred brought himself up about as close as he dared to the snake, and again fixed his glare of hatred upon those evil eye-slits. Fred did not really have what you’d call evil eye-slits himself, but the snake didn’t have bushy black eyebrows to scowl with, so up to this point, it was about a draw.
Fred drew the claw hammer back over his head in a long windup, then sent it crashing down to the ground.
Unfortunately, it WAS only a claw hammer, not something with a long handle, and it WAS a large snake that you wouldn’t want to stand too close to, so due to his caution, the hammer struck the earth several inches short of its mark, in front of the snake.
The snake, unaccustomed to any creature that didn’t show it a sensible amount of respect, didn’t even flinch. He just glared back with every bit as much hatred for Fred as Fred had for him.
Fred paused a moment, steeling himself for a more aggressive attack, then stepped a few millimeters closer and, without warning, launched what was intended to be a quick and brutal volley of several murderous strikes that were intended to turn the snake into a bloody ribbon of white flesh and cold blood. In considerably less time than it takes to tell about it, the hammer fell once and missed, twice and hit the ground, three times and it connected with a body blow to the snake far from the head.
The snake’s body, probably from reflex after the fierce blow, sprang out of its coil and became entangled in the claws of the hammer so that, when Fred made his next frenzied upstroke of his weapon, he brought one extremely agitated copperhead up with it.
In that split second, his natural reaction was to let go of the hammer, and Fred, being no hand to thwart nature, let it go.
My father never tires of describing the look on Fred’s face, or the odd, little-girl screech that came bleating from his throat in that instant of truth when he looked up to realize that he had just thrown a two-pound claw hammer and a six-foot copperhead straight up into that beautiful spring sky, directly over his own head, and that both were now on their way back down.
Personally, I think it’s better to just live and let live. If we kill all the snakes, who then, will we get to swallow all those field mice?