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Bel Air Turtle Derby participants say: On with the show

Derby draws large crowd despite controversy; frog-jumping, other July 4 events also are busy

BY BRYNA ZUMER AND ERIKA BUTLER, bzumer@theaegis.com; ebutler@theaegis.com

12:50 AM EDT, July 5, 2013

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The rain was staying away, the crowd was out and the turtles and frogs were doing their best to reach the finish line as Bel Air's annual Independence Day events got under way Thursday morning.

The Turtle Derby especially had a robust group of participants, despite attempts by wildlife groups to get it cancelled this year, warning of the spread of dangerous viruses from the intermingling of wild turtles.

Organizers at the derby, which was run by the Bel Air Kiwanis Club for the first time, seemed anxious to make sure participants stayed safe and clean.

An announcer reminded everyone during the race: "You should always wash your hands thoroughly after handing turtles."

Sandra Hopkins and Trish Weiss, who were manning the registration table, said Department of Natural Resources officials collected a couple of turtles that were sick but otherwise did not have any issues with the turtles people were bringing.

Hopkins and Weiss said many people were upset about the plans to stop the derby, and there were plenty of eager participants.

"You can see the turnout," Hopkins added.

Despite the heightened scrutiny of the animal events, participants like Don Dow did not think it was too restrictive. His daughter was taking part in the frog-jumping contest, which followed the turtle derby.

"They try to spread education for everybody," Dow said about the organizers of the two events. "I think they are doing a good job with it."

Sophia Dow, 12, of Bel Air, was eager to show off Pot Pie and Phillippe (or Phi-'leap'), two very large frogs she was preparing to enter.

Sophia said she enters the race every year.

"It's really fun, almost to have, like, a two-day holiday," she said about Independence Day.

She had come with Bel Air's Maggie Schepleng, 12, who was excited to be racing Fudge and Mr. Cuddles, two formidable-looking amphibians.

"My favorite part is catching the frogs," Maggie said, adding it helped that Sophia had a lake in front of her house.

Many entries

The frog-jumping contest had 178 entries, which organizers said was far more than they had expected. There were first-timers at both of the animal events, as well as those who had made a tradition of coming.

Sherry Beaulieu, of Abingdon, brought her children, 6-year-old Cole and 4-year-old Grace, for the first time this year.

"We found our turtle in our yard, and we are going to go back and put him home," Beaulieu explained.

Cole was confident the turtle, named Slow Flash, could win "because he wants to go out."

Beaulieu had not heard of the controversy over the derby, but said she felt turtles were safe as long as people were careful to wash their hands.

"I think we have been very careful," she said.

Katie Weneke, of Abingdon, was also back to the race with 1-year-old Jayden for the first time since she herself was a child. She had brought two friends, including her boss, Tessa Mediri of Bel Air.

"She's trying to keep up the tradition," Mediri explained about Weneke.

Weneke added: "I never knew they were still doing it."

Weneke was not too confident about the turtle's chances, but Jayden seemed to be having a good time.

"He likes the turtle," she said.

Weneke had also not heard of the controversy and was not too worried about it.

"I guess not because I used to do it when I was little and it was never an issue," she said.

Monitoring the derby

A handful of people wearing Susquehannock Wildlife Society shirts, one of two groups that had called for the derby to cease and desist, were surveying the event and photographing it.

Founder Scott McDaniel said he understands the tradition that had brought out 140 turtles this year, 105 of them box turtles, but his group was still not supporting it.

"Obviously we have been trying to campaign that this is the last year," McDaniel said from outside the racing ring. "Our job is to protect local wildlife."

He explained his group was just there in case people had questions about animals and to help the Department of Natural Resources keep endangered or sick animals out of the event.

"We want it to go as well as possible and hopefully offer support that this is the last year," McDaniel said.

To most of the families who had excitedly brought reptiles and amphibians to Shamrock Park, however, the claims of dangerous diseases were "absurd" and plans to cancel the derby made no sense.

"I think it's ridiculous," said Paul Majewski, of Forest Hill, who noted he has been catching frogs and turtles his whole life and never had problems.

Majewski was waiting for the derby to start with his family and friends, who had been joking about the controversy.

"I think they are insane to make it an issue over a 50-year tradition," he said.

Majewski said his family always catches turtles and puts them back and, he noted, they always lose the race.

"It's a family tradition," he said. "It's just fun. It's not really about winning or losing."

It's also a tradition for the family of Mary Chance, the county government's director of administration, who said she has been coming to the derby for 40 years. Her daughter Heather Krout, who now has her own family, won the derby when she was 4 years old.

"It's a good, old, 'apple pie' [event], just what a family celebration should be, and kids being with their parents and their friends, and then you do the parade and fireworks," Chance said. "We really look forward to it."

Chance called the efforts to cancel the derby a waste of time.

"I think there are more important issues to be addressed than worrying about a turtle race, when over the years people have been told, 'Return the turtle back home,'" she said. "I just think all this energy over a turtle race is just absurd. To put a damper on a tradition that is healthy and happy and family-oriented is over the top."

"That is part of why I wanted to come, too, to say, 'Come on, guys, let people have fun,'" Chance added.

'Eat!' on command

Independence Day events kept humming at Shamrock and other places in town throughout the day, with dozens of children and families taking part in events like the watermelon-eating contest, Bicycle Rodeo and Uncle Sam Says.

Several hundred young participants sunk their teeth into the watermelon contest, with many of them seriously trying to polish off the pink as onlookers yelled, "Eat!"

Tom and Tammy Dowling, of Forest Hill, said the event was fun for their 2-year-old son Blake, who was still holding his slice long after the contest was over.

Unlike last year, Blake learned to wait this time, the Dowlings said.

"They know how to follow instructions," Tom Dowling said with a smile, adding watermelon was one of Blake's favorite snacks.

Lexi Schmittcarr, 9, of Bel Air, is also a big watermelon-lover. She got second-place in her age group after coming to the event for four years.

"I think I eat watermelon more often than I did when I was little, so I did it a little bit faster," Lexi explained. "I love watermelon."

It was also another successful year for the pancake breakfast, which kicks off the July 4 festivities first thing in the morning at Bel Air High School.

This year, Harold Boccia of the Bel Air Lions Club, who has run the event for 17 years, bought 665 pounds of dry batter, 30 gallons of milk, 35 cases of sausage, nine 3-pound cans of coffee and 10 cases of frozen orange juice concentrate.

He never knows how much he's going to need.

As for how many he hoped to serve this year - "one more than last year," Boccia said. And last year the Lions made breakfast for 2,218 people.

This year's line extended from the cafeteria entrance almost around to the front of the school, but it moved quickly and the crowd standing in its red, white and blue was entertained by the sounds of the Upper Chesapeake Chorus of Sweet Adelines.