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After Work: Life In The Wild West

…One afternoon I came home to find a turtle the size of an old-fashioned washtub doing laps in the swimming pool.

Well, I thought, it found its way in and it can find its way out…

Dona Gibbs tells of the day a turtle came a-calling at her Florida home.

For lots more of Dona’s breezy columns please click on After Work in the menu on this page..

“Respect our wildlife. Remember they were here first.”

This is one of the attractive but discreet signs posted in our community along with the usual postings of Children at Play, tow away zones and speed warnings that you might find in any suburban setting.

However this is South Florida and the “Respect our wildlife warning” is a plea that has real poignancy these days of rampant development.

You see, the community in which I live was carved out of several hundred marshy acres ten miles west of Palm Beach about thirty years ago. The developers took a real chance venturing that far west. People shook their heads in disbelief, “Who would live way out there?”

There are still some starchy Palm Beach residents who ask that question, thinking that it must be populated by swamp folk and wild hogs. They’d be wrong about the swamp folk and wild hogs, but they wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that the area is inhabited by all kinds of wild critters.

One afternoon I came home to find a turtle the size of an old-fashioned washtub doing laps in the swimming pool.

Well, I thought, it found its way in and it can find its way out.

Hour after hour passed. Back and forth it paddled. It seemed to tire. Was that desperation I detected in its eyes?

I ran around the corner of the house and fetched the long handled pool skimming net. I plunged it into the water, planning to scoop out the tired turtle. In a burst of energy it dove to the bottom.

Again and again I tried. The turtle took off like a shot for the deep end.

Now I was the desperate one. I attempted to herd it. I managed to prod it back towards the shallow water and net it. The skimmer, however, was meant to hold a few soggy leaves and twigs and not a thirty-pound turtle. The pole bent and the net shredded.

Now I had a turtle that was exhausted, fearful—and angry.

Clearly, rescuing it was beyond my capabilities.

I raced into the house and dialed Animal Control.

Turtles, the sweet-voiced woman on the phone explained patiently, were not in their jurisdiction. I would have to call in a private trapper. She supplied me with the names of three—all in the far reaches of the country.

It was Saturday and the first two were not available. Out in the Everglades, I imagined, tracking the mysterious Florida Skunk Ape, a fabled manlike creature that several people claimed to have seen recently. Busman’s holiday as it were.

Then, hooray, on the third call I got a real person on the phone. A real Florida person.

“Yes,” he allowed, “I’ll throw my net in the truck and be right over.”

An hour passed. Back and forth, back and forth, the turtle swam.

I was numb with sadness.

A cacophony of rattles, clangs and bangs announced Trapper John’s arrival. To my ears it was a symphony, and, yes, Trapper John was what he called himself.

He was a sinewy, rangy man wearing orange and blue nylon shorts, a wife-beater tank top, flip-flops and a Miami Dolphins cap pulled down over shoulder length hair. The kind of swamp-wise man that Palm Beachers think inhabit the wild west but are now an endangered species themselves.

“Brought my kid with me. Hope you don’t mind. Wife’s out,” he gestured with his chin toward the truck cab where his ten-year-old son was zonked out—fast asleep in the humid Florida heat.

He followed me around the house to the pool where the marathon swimmer was paddling away.

“Lawd,” he said, “You got yerself a biggun.”

He headed back to his truck and hauled out the net and a pole with a sturdy loop of wire at one end.

“You going to wrestle him out?” I ventured.

“Hell, no, that there’s a snapper. He could take off your arm.”

That made me truly happy I’d been unsuccessful in my attempts to get the turtle on dry land.

He carefully spread the net and skillfully maneuvered the turtle’s head into the loop of wire. Three minutes later the turtle was on the pool deck.

With one deft, graceful motion, Trapper John reached under the turtle’s shell on both sides and flipped it on its back. Seems snapping turtles come equipped with handles.

He carried the turtle very carefully to the back of the truck and gingerly loaded him, amid nets, poles, humane traps and other professional trapping gear.

“What are you going to do with it?” I asked. I was sorry to see it there on its back looking so helpless.

“Oh I’ll take’im out and turn’im loose in one of the canals.”

I was relieved.

Fifty dollars and a handshake later, Trapper John was clanking out of the driveway.

His son never woke up.

A case of if you’ve seen Daddy net one snapper, you’ve seen’em all.


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