When I walked my first-grader to the bus stop that September morning, I explained to her that she was going to a friend’s house after school because Mommy was heading over to Darby Cave to “rescue Homie”. She turned around and leveled me a serious look as the bus pulled up. “Mommy,” she said, adjusting her princess backpack, “you’re going to fail.”
She was speaking from experience. Neeka had met “Homie”, the foot-long common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) stranded 2000 feet from Darby’s entrance, on the same day I had. We were both tagging along with perennial caving buddy Corey Hackley on a school holiday (which means we cave in western Maryland), and he gave us his typical scant notice of the challenges ahead. “Um, a couple of weird climbs, some risk of flooding – and oh yeah, there’s a live snapper stuck back in there somewhere.”
The plight of the stranded turtle immediately tugged at my heart. To die slowly, alone and lost in the dark and cold . . .
“If we bump into him,” I told Corey and Neeka, “I want to do a rescue.”
Corey stared at me, appalled. I asked him what the problem was.
“He’s a snapping turtle!!!!”
He sure was. We found him (or her?) easily: “Homie”, as he was about to be named, was sprawled directly across our route. Neeka and Corey watched skeptically from a safe distance as I emptied my pack and then tried to herd the confused animal into it via poking it with rotting sticks. I shrieked several times as the turtle broke its statue-like stillness to take powerful snaps at my fingers, and then cursed extensively as it crawled over my pack, bent my sticks sideways, and took shelter under an unreachable rock. “Homie, you’re so dumb!!!” I shouted at the peak of my agitation, making Neeka and Corey break into giggles and tagging the poor turtle with the dubious handle “Homie” for the rest of our time together. But seriously – didn’t the stupid turtle want to live? On that particular afternoon, it really didn’t seem like it. After Neeka and Corey finished laughing at my expense, I admitted defeat and we turned our attention to the cave’s other attractions.
Homie wasn’t so easy to find a second time. Corey, quite predictably, gave up searching in the first ten minutes. After poking around in low, uneven crawls for another hour and a half, I too was about to call it quits, when one of the rocks about a foot in front of my elbow twitched. I turned my head and shone my light at the twitching rock – and then screamed and backed up quickly as it resolved itself in my vision into Homie’s prehistoric face.
First I hollered my shock at the snapper’s sudden proximity (we were sharing a pretty tight passage there, Homie and I), and then I hollered for Corey. He came reluctantly (I think Corey was secretly hoping Homie would have perished in the intervening month, sparing him this nonsense), and then sat back as I made a second go at packaging the frightened turtle. I got pretty serious with my racquetball ‘chopsticks’ for a few tense minutes, and after a brief struggle, Homie was securely wedged into the Whole Foods basket. From there, it was merely a matter of dredging the basket through the maze of chutes and ladders that sat in between Homie’s god-intended resting place and the sunny surface. With a minimum of fuss, we made it. I bore Homie proudly over to a wholesome pond, dumped him out, and then sent a text-message to the babysitter to tell Neeka that Mommy hadn’t failed after all. Homie sat there motionless on the bank while we went back and collected our junk from the cave – but by the time I returned one last time to get a picture of him in his new paradise, Homie was gone.
#1. What if Homie was okay in the cave?
If I were stuck in a 55 degree cave for four months with no light, no food, and no source of warmth, I would be dead, having suffered greatly on my way to get there. So I automatically extended that assumption to Homie. When we left him the first time, I thought there was a good chance he’d perish from starvation and exposure in the intervening month, rendering all my heroism in vain.
But snapping turtles are not humans.
As part of their lifestyle – and they have been around way longer than we have, bearing little evolutionary difference from their Proganochelys ancestors who lumbered around with the dinosaurs – they routinely hibernate in the muck below the ice of frozen ponds for 2-4 months out of the year. There’s no light down there. No food. It gets considerably colder than 55 degrees. And beyond all that, there isn’t even very much oxygen. Yet Homie can handle it. So in fact, Homie’s stint in Darby Cave was probably a vacation compared to what he’ll go through in his “paradise pond” come mid-December.
And if the cave flooded once, it will almost certainly flood again, and with the passages submerged, there’s a possibility that Homie could find his own way out. In fact, there’s a slight possibility that hitching a ride into Darby Cave on floodwaters is something that Homie does regularly. It isn’t likely: even for a tough Dino-turtle like Homie, starting one’s hibernation season in June or July – and having to wait until March for the heavy rains to make one’s exit – is quite the marathon. So my rescue probably did something for Homie’s long-term odds, though it wasn’t quite the dramatic “snatching the patient from the jaws of death” scenario that I had originally imagined. Which just goes to show that any wanna-be hero really ought to look into whether the victim wants to – or needs to – be saved before jumping in.
#2: What if Homie had a unique fate to fulfill in the cave?
Somebody has to be the first turtle to get stuck underground and start adapting if we’re ever going to have unique species like the Blind Albino Underground Dwarf Snapper, which nests in the caverns of Western Maryland, living off of cave crickets, salamanders, and the occasional bat. If you were wondering, such a creature doesn’t really exist on this planet. And now, since I went in and ‘rescued’ Homie, perhaps it never will.
Let’s say I got Homie’s gender wrong (both sexes of snapping turtles look equally like dinosaurs to me), and what I was working with there was actually a pregnant female, whose clutch of eggs laid in the cave that autumn was destined to be the forefathers and foremothers of something totally new: the aforementioned exotic cave turtle. In dragging Homie back up to the fishpond instead of leaving her down there, I had no faith in the crazy coincidences that have created all the fabulous complexity that exists on this planet. I opted instead for maintaining the status quo. Homie and her children will remain Common Snapping Turtles until they run into some other ecological challenge down the line, the crickets and salamanders in Darby Cave will remain untested by a unique new predator, and perhaps the world will be a little less interesting.
#3: What if Homie was okay with dying?
Okay, picture this (and bear with my melodrama). Homie spent his weeks there in the darkness reaching a profound state of peace. He pondered his karma, forgave everyone who had ever done him wrong, contemplated the great circle of life – and was on the brink of total enlightenment, when out of a crack pops my goofy face. I proceed to scream, blind him with my headlamp, holler insulting things, and then cram his body into a grocery basket (of all the humiliating receptacles), and dump him right back into the tiring world of sin.
You might or might not not want to give a turtle credit for that much profundity. But Homie’s “enlightenment” scenario could also apply to many of the heroic rescues undertaken in our culture every day. In many cases – kind of like my encounter with Homie – we modern humans, with the best of intentions, battle an inevitable death well past the point where both dignity and a reasonable expenditure of resources have been surpassed. Surrounded by technological miracles, we sometimes lose the ability to accept when it is a creature’s (or a person’s!) time to go, and encourage peace and acceptance rather than fighting to stay alive at any cost. Bearing with suffering is not an easy thing to do (just look at me and Homie), but in light of our ever-dwindling resources and ever-more-crowded planet, we might at some point need to reconsider the lovely notion that every death on this planet should be avoided – and every snapping turtle should be rescued.