Why Turtles Cross the Road

There was a nice letter in last week’s Shelter Island Reporter reminding people to be on the lookout for turtles crossing the roads.  I know to some people that seems like a silly thing to remind people of, but I love turtles and I too, want people to watch out for them.

Spring is the time of year when animals get together and make more animals. If you pause to think about it, this must be much harder for turtles than other animals.  First of all, they have to find another turtle. They don’t live in herds like deer, so I have no idea how they find each other. Do they cross the roads because they’re looking for love in all the wrong places?

Why is it that turtles even bother to cross the roads? The grass isn’t greener on the other side, so why take the risk?

I have a theory that since it’s usually the male of the species that try to attract the female, that it’s only male turtles that try to cross the roads.  I think it’s their way of being macho and showing off their ability to cause gigantic metal machines to screech to a halt and cause giants to get out of the machines and carry them to the other side of the road. They probably carve a notch in their shell for each giant machine they stop.  And if they get hit by one of the big machines, and have the luck not to die, they usually have a nice big scrape on them to show off to the females, a war wound they can get “street cred” for.

When my son, Jacob, was younger, he would scan the road for turtles as I drove. If he spotted one, we would pull over and get the turtle. I carried red nail enamel in my van and Jacob would give the turtle a name and I’d paint it on his shell.  This way, we were able to track turtle movements all over the Island and uncover who was crossing the road too much. His policy was if we caught the same turtle crossing a road three times, he was eligible for Jacob’s relocation program to Mashomack Preserve. We actually caught two turtles twice who were crossing the road, but on the second offense, Jacob would relocate them further into the woods from the side of the road and let them off with a warning.  That seemed to work since we never had to take anyone to the Preserve.

Of course the most annoying thing is when you stop to help a turtle across the road, and as soon as you put them down, they head back into the road in the direction they just came from.  Why do they do that?  Is it that these are the criminal turtles who have been sentenced to cross a road, allowing the gods of Chevy and Ford to decide their fate?  Are these the daredevil turtles who are addicted to the adrenaline rush of hearing tires roar past them?  Have they had enough of turtle life and they’re just trying to end it all?  Are they trying to run 20 feet across the road race to benefit a turtle charity? And because of the intrinsic danger, they only have one racer at a time? The turtle—a conundrum in a hard shell, but still an Island pal.

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