Turtles' hopeless bid for survival

The Baltimore Sun

I understand the inclination to take the turtle home. You're driving along a road that used to be a country road, but is now a congested commuter road, leading to any of a dozen nearby cul-de-sacs or pastel-colored townhouse tracts or a shopping center anchored by Wal-Mart. You spot a turtle ahead. The humane instinct, centered in the heart, sends a signal to the brain, and suddenly you find yourself pulling to the shoulder, stepping out of your motorized turtle-killing machine, picking the reptile up and either carrying it across the road, its intended destination, or taking it home.

The instinct to take the turtle home is a cross-species, paternal-maternal one, stewed in a brine of human guilt for 100 years. We are all keenly aware of the state of things in the first decade of the 21st century. Nature is not what it used to be. Our concept of it no longer exists. It is no longer something "out there," so vast and ceaselessly wild that human beings could never permanently change it. We have changed it in profound ways, globally and locally, forever.

Locally, we have wiped away habitats, built houses and office buildings and shopping centers and malls, and poured concrete to make roads connecting them all. We have purchased millions of motor vehicles and placed them on these roads.

And, aware of all this, immersed in all this, we feel shock and remorse when the turtle emerges - an anachronism under carapace, trying to get from one place to another without being crushed.

It used to be that a turtle had more time - maybe even plenty of time - to cross our roads. The intervals between trucks, cars and tractors were longer. A turtle had something of a chance.

Not so anymore.

The common Eastern box turtle is not endangered, but it's certainly threatened.

So I understood, instantly, when I heard the story about Charlie Evans and his quiet, one-man crusade to save the EBT from the onslaught of ever-increasing human traffic in Baltimore and Harford counties. He's done this for 15 years.

Evans, president of the funeral service company that bears his family's name, has lifted EBTs off busy roads. He has taken injured ones home. He has taken turtles from other people who didn't know what to do with them. He found a veterinarian who specializes in their care, and Evans racked up some big turtle-repair bills over the years.

He started doing this while he lived in Parkville. When he moved to a 14-acre place in Street, Harford County, he took his adopted turtles with him.

The EBT is the most terrestrial of Maryland's 13 turtle species, very much at home in forests. So Evans set up a sanctuary, with a wall two cinder blocks high, surrounding 1.5 acres in the woods on his property.

That's where his Eastern box turtles lived - until one day last summer.

On Sunday morning, July 8, two officers of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources showed up at his house in Street, told Evans he'd violated state law and confiscated 52 turtles from his property.

The law he allegedly violated states that a $25 permit is required to keep more than one Eastern box turtle. The officers gave Evans citations that carried fines of $840. He says they refused to identify the snitch. He has no idea where DNR took the turtles.

In September, DNR officers came back to Evans' house and searched his property again. They found an Eastern box turtle he had recently rescued from the road - it had been hit by a car - and two others that had evaded capture in the earlier DNR raid.

Again, the officers cited Evans for not having a turtle-keeper permit. (Officials at DNR could not be reached for comment yesterday or Friday.)

The second case went to Maryland District Court in Bel Air last fall, and a judge there dismissed the fines. Evans says his case from July, involving the 52 turtles, goes to court next month.

He finds DNR's behavior in all of this heavy-handed, and says he would have been glad to get the necessary permits to keep the turtles.

Charlie Evans believes he's been doing good deeds - turtle rescuer in an increasingly congested and turtle-cruel world.

"Look," he says, "I'm not the Michael Vick of turtles."

But not everyone thinks the human hand should extend to taking turtles home.

On its Web site, the Humane Society of the United States opposes wild turtles as pets, though its reasons are a bit confusing and contradictory.

"The collection of turtles by passers-by seriously contributes to the ongoing population declines in many species," the Web site asserts. "Turtles and tortoises are particularly vulnerable to collecting, since they are slow-moving and generally nonaggressive. Likewise, their populations are vulnerable as well. As is typical of long-lived animals, turtles are slow to sexually mature. They lay relatively few eggs, and mortality of eggs and hatchlings is frequently very high. In addition, their habitat is increasingly fractured by roads and carved up into housing developments and shopping centers, causing local extinctions. Thus every turtle who survives to adulthood is critical to his population. ...

"Wild turtles belong in the wild."

I asked Charlie Evans about this - that humans should help turtles get to the other side of the road, then leave them there.

"They're going to end up back on the road," he says. "If mankind keeps expanding as we do, we'll keep taking away their habitat and life is going to be miserable for them. They're doomed."

Doomed because of us, doomed without us.


Dan Rodricks is the host of Midday, Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1, WYPR-FM.


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