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Column: Springtime turtle encounters teach lessons of patience

Yellow-bellied sliders, such as this one photographed in Knotts Island, N.C., are native in southeastern Virginia and North Carolina, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. [File/The Princess Anne Independent News]

BY LISA BURKETT

SANDBRIDGE — I recently learned that I can’t outwait a turtle.

My boyfriend Bob and I sometimes find baby turtles on his property in Sandbridge in the spring, and we put them back in the canal. 

On this particular beautiful morning, I decided to take pictures of our view of the water, and, lo and behold, there was an 11-inch-long turtle sitting behind a landscaped island. Its neck was stretched out, and it seemed to be enjoying the breeze. When I approached, its head went into the shell.

Undeterred, I went back into the house and pulled a handful of leaves from a head of lettuce. I know I’m not supposed to feed the wildlife, but curiosity took over my brain. I had recently seen a large turtle at my veterinarian’s office chewing on lettuce. I thought this guy might have a go at it.

I know a little bit about turtles, having grown up on Lake Smith, a freshwater kind-of-brackish lake that was stocked with bass years ago by the city of Norfolk. I’ve held my share of the local turtles in that area, and I have seen more than one snapping turtle.

My grandfather, who lived on the lake, would say, “Don’t touch a snappin’ turtle you’ll lose your finger. And if you don’t lose it, he’ll at least hold onto it for a while and we’ll have to call the ambulance and all that mess.” He instilled a healthy respect for snapping turtles with his grandkids.

Once, when I was living at my grandparent’s house, I walked outside the front door waiting for my brother Jeff to come over. Jeff parked his car way down the lane. He walked towards me and waved his hand.

“Lisa, you gotta see this thing,” he said. “Hurry up.”

I jogged up to the road, and there — walking like an old man down the street toward the lake — was the largest snapping turtle I had ever seen. It looked like an 18-inch dinosaur with spikes and a long tail. You can lie about the size of a fish, but not a turtle. 

This was in 2004. Neither of us had a phone with a camera, so we simply followed the aged turtle down the road like the smart adults we were.

Jeff got too close to this “acqua-genarian.” The turtle jumped at him – high like a dog trying to catch a Frisbee, only Jeff was the Frisbee.

Jeff fell back faster than a rabbit stepping on a snake, landed on his bottom and yelled something along the lines of “darn it.”  

That dinosaur turtle just turned, sauntering back towards the lake. 

Jeff laughed nervously. We looked at each other in disbelief. That amazing old creature, probably 100 years old, walked right into the woods without looking back.

Well, this turtle in Sandbridge did not look like a snapping turtle. He looked sweet, gentle and perhaps slow of foot. I tossed the lettuce pieces down near the turtle, but he didn’t put his head out of his shell.  I approached him and aimed more directly at his head, but he did nothing.

I sat on a tree stump uncomfortably and waited and waited. Finally, I took a piece of lettuce and rubbed him on the nose with it. 

He made a squeaky sound. I did it again, and he made the sound again and turned away. I laid the lettuce down and waited another entire minute.

I just wanted to see him chew. I reached my hand out again with lettuce, and this time he lunged and bit my finger, pulling the lettuce out of my hand.

He bit my finger. 

Visions of headlines appeared in my mind: “Local Lady loses finger feeding turtle.” My grandfather looking down from heaven, shaking his head, saying, “I told that girl not to pet a snappin’ turtle.”

I realized I wasn’t hurt, that all he had done was what I wanted him to do — take the daggone lettuce. Then, as if in defiance, he wouldn’t chew it. I started to laugh and took pictures anyway.

Nature’s timing is not our timing, and I know, despite these actions, that we shouldn’t mess with nature. Animals have their own destiny, their own ways of existing. By not biting my finger off, this turtle — a yellow bellied slider, I believe — enabled me to keep typing, therefore keeping my day job.

I thank him for looking past my good-hearted stupidity.

I went inside to tell Bob that I had an encounter with the turtle. Five minutes later, that patient turtle was gone. So was all the lettuce.

He showed me.


Burkett is a Virginia Beach native and University of Richmond graduate who has been in marketing for over 25 years. She is a writer and photographer who owns her own craft business. Burkett has four children, ages 15 to 30. She lives in Sandbridge.


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The Independent News

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