We may think of snapping turtles as hissing, lunging, and biting beasts, but that's because we tend to meet them on land. In water, they're more shy than hostile, swimming away from threats and retreating into the mud.
They're shy but not beautiful, these creatures of the mud, and I have seen them up close. A couple of summers ago, I was swimming in my upstate New York pond and saw, a few yards away on the surface of the water, a curious combination of moving body parts. There was a glossy, ridged back, then another glossy back, a scaly paw with bearlike claws, and part of a thick, thorny tail.
Breaking any previous pond freestyle record, I swam to shore.
Through binoculars I could see that the mélange of shells, claws, and tails was Shakespeare's beast with two backs—a pair of snapping turtles locked in an embrace that went on for another half-hour. When the coupling had finished and the male unfastened his grip on the female's back, the two stayed floating near each other awhile longer. Then one gave the other (I'd lost track of which was which) a little nudge on the shell with its blunt snout, and they went back to the bottom of the pond.
Two years have passed, and we haven't seen those lovers again. We haven't seen any snapping turtles at all. Yet there are people who refuse to swim in our pond because, over twilight gin and tonics, we have told this charming tale of reptile love.
After some research I realized I could have shared the water with the amorous turtles. For one thing, those two were preoccupied, in the most basic sense of the word. They were also on their home turf: According to various trustworthy Web sites, snappers are benign in water and defensive unto aggressive on land, when provoked.
"I have never heard of anyone being attacked or injured by a snapping turtle in water, unless they were trying to catch it or restrain it," says J. Whitfield Gibbons, University of Georgia professor of ecology and co-author of Turtles of the Southeast. Gibbons did recall, vividly, being bitten on the finger by a Potomac River snapper when he reached down and grabbed the shell. At any rate, it was a laceration, not an amputation. (The old bite-the-broomstick-in-two-with-its-powerful-jaws thing is greatly exaggerated, he says. And please don't try it—the turtle can suffer a broken jaw.)
I asked Gibbons and other herpetologists whether they'd rather have a swimming hole with a snapping turtle in it or one without. The answer was definitely with. It's like having a small dinosaur in your pond, said Michigan State University herpetologist James Harding. (And who wouldn't want that?) In fact, it's like having a particularly useful little dinosaur, one that consumes dead fish and rotting vegetation and controls the frog, snail, and leech populations. Despite their frightening appearance—30 to 80 pounds of muscle and shell, carapace a foot long, and hooked jaw—many snapping turtles have a diet that's 65 percent vegetation.
These animals are not merely misunderstood by most of us—they're often demonized. The protagonist of Edmund Wilson's brilliant story "The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles" drains his pond (after his shooting campaign has failed) and beheads the snapping turtles he believes have eaten baby ducks. Here's the title character sermonizing: "If God has created the mallard, a thing of beauty and grace, how can He allow these dirty filthy mud-turtles to prey upon His handiwork and destroy it?"