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  1. Opinion

So this soft-shell steps into the street...

A citified encounter with a soft-shell turtle like this one. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2018)]
A citified encounter with a soft-shell turtle like this one. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2018)]
Published May 30, 2019

I was driving to work thinking about my day when suddenly there was this turtle.

She — I'm going with "she" for reasons to be explained — wasn't where you would expect a turtle. She was trying to cross a busy Tampa street at rush hour, headed north across Swann Avenue toward a pond not far from the fancy shops of Hyde Park Village.

I stopped and put on my hazard lights. A guy in a work truck coming the other way got out to move the turtle out of harm's way.

But this was no little box turtle you could pluck with one hand and deposit safely in the grass. This turtle was flatter, wider than a hubcap and on a mission. When Helpful Guy tried to pick her up, she gave a ferocious snap, then another. He mouthed "snapper" at me, and I concurred — though it would turn out to be a soft-shell in no mood to be messed with.

By now traffic was backed up for blocks in both directions with people trying to take kids to school and get to work. But nobody honked. Nobody made rude gestures. Drivers were mouthing "turtle" to each other.

Someone handed Helpful Guy a broom, which he used to try to shoo the turtle across. No luck. All he could do was get her back to the curb from whence she came. Traffic moved on. We went back to our mornings.

But I've been told (later confirmed by an expert) that it's best to put a turtle where it's headed, not from where it came. Because it will likely with single-minded reptilian determination try again.

Who to call?

Not what we do, said the Tampa Police dispatcher on the non-emergency line. The helpful state fish and wildlife folks pointed me to the volunteer Owl's Nest Sanctuary for Wildlife, which rescues sick, injured and orphaned animals, creatures caught in barbed wire, gopher tortoises in trouble and, sadly, sandhill cranes hit by cars when drivers assume they can easily lift off and get out of the way. They can't.

Director Kris Porter, a retired Busch Gardens zoologist, tells me the turtle on Swann was likely a soft shell (pictures showed she was right) who might have been out to lay her eggs in sandy soil. And yes, when a turtle is trying to protect itself, that mouth can do considerable damage to a human finger. "They're nothing to mess with," she says.

A helpful website told me soft-shells will move overland in search of better conditions, contributing to their "on-road mortality." I bet. Also, alligators like to eat them.

It is an interesting Florida phenomenon that even the hardcore among us will stop for a slow-moving turtle or to shepherd a mother and baby ducks in a state where endless development makes wildlife encounters too common. You can look up in traffic and see an osprey with a fish in its talons. A bald eagle, if you are really lucky.

Porter sent out a volunteer. No sign of the turtle. I drove through at lunchtime fearing roadside carnage but found none. I like to think she was back at the pond wondering what all that was about. Turtle 1, City 0.

Maybe Floridians understand better than most that we don't so much live in a city as we put our cities where wildlife was already trying to live.

For a wildlife emergency you can call 888-404-FWCC (3922). For more about the rescue: owlsnestsanctuaryforwildlife.com.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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