Saving Turtles

I belong to an online community, “Still Forming”, that is directed by Christianne Squires, a Chistian spiritual director from Winter Park, Florida..  Her husband Kirk wrote to the community this week about his adventures in rescuing three turtles.  I, too, am a turtle rescuer.  Many a turtle has been removed from harm’s way, sometimes at the risk of my own safety some would say.  And I realize that many fishermen find that practice annoying, as the turtles are a bain to their pleasure.  But I hate to see anything squashed on the roadway simply because the roadway happened to be between where it was and where it wanted to be.  Enjoy this story by Kirk and how he relates it to his own life in Christ.

Saving Turtles

Have you ever saved a turtle — or any other creature — from certain annihilation on the road? If so, you’ve experienced the good vibe a successful creature-saving intervention brings.  Florida is covered with lakes. And where there are lakes, there are turtles. Lots of turtles. It’s common to see many sunning themselves on floating logs.

But sometimes these turtles lose their way and stray onto busy roads. Often, they head in the opposite direction of their life-giving, freshwater habitat. Florida motorists have ample opportunity to practice their turtle-saving skills.

Two weeks ago, nature presented me with three turtle-saving opportunities in a single day.  Christianne and I had driven up to a 29-mile bike trail an hour outside Orlando that treks through primitive Florida wilderness, pastureland, and swamp. Soon into the trail, you encounter pristine terrain and wildlife. We were amped to give it a go.

I would soon learn those three turtle-saving moments presented an invitation to better know self and God.

Turtle Rescue #1: The Running Turtle

Just before the trailhead, we encountered our first lost turtle. It had wandered into the middle of a busy frontage road.  We pulled over and waited for the right break in traffic to perform the rescue operation. It was an adult turtle with yellow, green, and black coloring — a common lake turtle, probably a yellow-bellied pond slider. And, as happens often enough, this guy was headed the wrong way on the road, opposite the lake and toward a large field bordered by a barbed-wire fence.

I reached down to pick it up, and it started to scurry toward the fenced field. This wasn’t a good move. A water turtle trapped in a large, dry field wouldn’t last long in the summer sun.  I persisted in my pursuit, grabbed the turtle, and made for the lake. I stopped a few yards before shore because I was trespassing on private land.  I pointed the antsy pond slider toward the water and released it on the grass. It made for home, and everybody was happy.

Turtle Rescue #2: The Hiding Tortoise

We arrived at the trail and jumped on our bikes.   This trail teems with wildlife — in particular, gopher tortoises. Unlike turtles, which need a freshwater habitat, these are land-dwellers that burrow in sandy flatlands.  We passed many tortoises eating grass along the trail. But eventually, we happened upon a most delightful sight: a baby gopher tortoise in the middle of the trail road.

We only saw its 3-inch shell. (It likely retracted itself when it heard or felt us coming.) But even a shell won’t protect a baby tortoise against a much-larger human on a fast-moving bike. One strike would certainly kill it or severely harm it, let alone derail an unsuspecting cyclist.

I picked it up this tiny creature — it was no bigger than my palm — and relocated it out of harm’s way. We waited and watched for a glimpse of the tortoise’s tiny face, but it refused to come out.

Turtle Rescue #3: The Biting Turtle

Evidently, I was assigned turtle-saving duty that day. And yet the day’s previous experience didn’t prepare me for our third encounter.  As we approached a crossroad, we noticed another shell-shaped creature in the middle of the intersection. It was crawling across a rural country road with a fair amount of traffic.  One again, this turtle was heading away from water. I dismounted my bike to return the creature to its swampy home.

It seemed to be a juvenile water turtle, its shell covered with dried algae. It had been out of the water long enough to risk dehydration. However, as a subject-matter expert in turtle-rescue operations (clearly!), I expected to gracefully execute another intervention and carry on my merry way.    The turtle had a different agenda.

Christianne monitored the traffic while I crouched down to pick up the turtle. A loud hissing sound signaled its displeasure. This was a little amusing — until it opened its very large mouth and lunged toward my right hand.

Snap!  That stinker tried to bite me. Startled, I almost dropped it on the pavement. I barely got it back on the road before it snapped again.

As one not inclined toward turtle bites, I resorted to Plan B: sliding the turtle toward the water with my shoe-protected foot. This would take some coordination, as the water was about a dozen feet away.  I placed my shoe against the turtle. It leaned hard into my foot, arched up, and held fast. I applied more pressure, and it hissed loudly. It wouldn’t budge.

Then, snap, snap, snap!

My thin athletic shoe took a beating. It wouldn’t stand up long to such a fierce attack. What’s more, I still need all my toes.  Clearly, this turtle was in a foul mood. I wondered if it was hurt. Perhaps it had already been hit by a car.

Christianne waved off approaching traffic as I inspected the ill-tempered creature from a safer distance. No apparent injuries, but upon a closer look, I noticed this wasn’t your standard-issue turtle.

A brief Google search on my iPhone revealed we’d come face to face with the dreaded snapping turtle. The online description matched our road visitor exactly: the shell, the tail, the head, the feet, and — most of all — the aggressive behavior.  This was no friendly water turtle or cute baby gopher tortoise. This was a mean, don’t-mess-with-me, bad-boy reptile. If you value your fingers, don’t pet this one.

Naturally, this presented a dilemma: save the wicked beast and risk grave injury or abort the intervention and save my own skin? Both soul and ego favored the former. My soul wanted to see my fellow creature enjoy a full life, and my ego couldn’t bear the shame of letting it beat me. I could see the headlines now: “Grown Man Defeated by Defiant Juvenile Turtle.”   I was going to prevail and save this cranky critter, come hell or high water. I had too much skin in the game now.

I activated Plan C: use my bike helmet to scoot the turtle to safety. With steel resolve, I slid the hissing, spitting, angry turtle toward the water. It repeatedly sank its strong, sharp beak into my helmet along the way, wailing upon it with a vengeance. I now knew this was its primary defense mechanism and that it had no clue I was trying to save it, not eat it.

Mission successful. Our feisty snapping turtle would live to see another day.

Honoring God, Self, and Turtles

I came to the end of my turtle-saving day thinking little more of it. Yet God used these three turtle interventions to disclose my fearful nature and — even more importantly — God’s good nature toward me in spite of myself.  Through natural animal behavior, God showed me that I’ve been and can still be all three of these lesser creatures: the running turtle, the hiding tortoise, and the biting turtle.  So often, God is saving me from myself. I wander away from my “natural habitat” and head in a direction opposite of what’s good for my soul or life.

Furthermore, I see how I’ve so often run from God or hidden from God or, most recently, snapped at God. I can rapid-fire wail on God’s hand — a strong, tender hand that’s only trying to save me.  God used this to remind me of God’s good heart toward all of us. We have the promise of God’s relentless, loving intervention in our lives, no matter our present state. Often, we just don’t know it at the time because, in our pain, we can misinterpret the real story.

I’m grateful God is always moving toward us and doesn’t stop, no matter whether we run, hide, or bite.

Which turtle response is usually yours — running, hiding, or biting? What is God inviting you to know about yourself through this? What might you be invited to know about God through it, too?

Until next week, every good wish.