Saving my neighbors, one snapping turtle at a time

The story of how I nearly rose to the status of superhero in the eyes of my neighbors begins at the G&M Variety Market in Holden.

I had stopped at the market to grab a few items on the way home on Monday, June 20, and while waiting in line at the checkout, I watched three young women ahead of me in line. Dressed for the beach, they were all smiles and chatter. I imagined they were headed to Mount Desert Island. Memories of sunbathing and playing frisbee with my girlfriends on Sand Beach occupied my mind as I waited for my turn to pay.

After a successful trip to the market, I continued home… and I was nearly there, about half a mile away from my driveway, when I came upon a large, black SUV parked to the side of the residential street ahead of me. I slowed down and assessed the situation: the three girls from the market were standing in the road, and one of them had a large stick. And at their feet, in the middle of the road, was an irate snapping turtle.

Having met a few snapping turtles before, I decided to park and help.


The snapping turtle I helped move on June 20, 2016.

The turtle, like all snapping turtles, was impressive, prehistoric looking. But it certainly wasn’t the biggest snapper I’ve ever seen. It was about the size of a flattened basketball — maybe a little bit bigger.

The three young ladies probably didn’t recognize me from the market. I was behind them in line, after all. But they seemed happy to see me, nonetheless.

“Which way was it headed?” I asked them after climbing out of my vehicle and closing the door.

“That way, I think,” said one of the women, pointing toward the nearby lake.

“We don’t know what to do,” said the one holding a large tree limb. I imagine she was trying to use the stick to push the turtle off the road, which would work if snapping turtles weren’t so fierce. As it was, the turtle had turned on the woman and was trying to snap at the stick.


The snapping turtle I helped move on June 20, 2016.

The same thing happened to me the first time I tried to save a snapping turtle from becoming roadkill. I actually tried to nudge it along with a metal shovel, and it turned and bit down on it with its sharp beak-like mouth. Clang! But after some struggling, my husband was able to scoop the turtle into the shovel and carry it to the side of the road.

On June 20, I didn’t have a shovel. And the turtle looked like it was holding its ground, smack dab in the middle of the road.

All of the sudden, I went into superhero mode. I don’t know what possessed me. Maybe I was showing off. Maybe I wanted to show the women (who I assumed to be from away and on summer vacation) how a true Mainer deals with a snapping turtle. Maybe I just wanted to get the turtle off the road before it was flattened by a less-observant driver. Whatever the reason, I walked around the angry, hissing turtle, grasped its shell and picked it up.

Wasn’t I worried about the turtle biting off my finger, you ask?

Yes, I was a little worried. But a biologist who specializes in turtle research once told me that it’s perfectly fine to pick up a snapping turtle if you just grasp it by the back of its shell, far from its dangerous mouth. Common snapping turtles have deceptively long necks. If you grab its shell in the middle, it could snake its head around to bite your hand.

So, if you’re looking down at the turtle’s shell, imagine it’s a clock. The turtle’s head is at 12, so you want to place your hands at hours 4 and 8, or maybe even a little farther back, at 5 and 7, if you can manage the imbalance. 

Disclaimer: If you try this, it’s at your own risk. I don’t want to he held responsible for turtle-induced injuries. In fact, some wildlife agencies caution against picking up snapping turtles because the buggers can be quite heavy and slippery. This particular snapper, however, was fairly small and dry.

Another snapper I helped save… June 8, 2014, Winterport, Maine.

I guess I should add that I’d never picked up a snapping turtle before. Before then, I only knew that it worked in theory…

Once the snapping turtle felt itself being picked up, it lunged forward, startling me and causing me to lose my grip. It fell a few inches to the ground. That’s why it’s important to stoop over and keep a turtle close to the ground when you carry it. It’s awkward, but if you drop it, it won’t be a big deal.

I quickly grasped the turtle’s shell again and continued carrying it to the gravel shoulder of the road, where it was likely headed to lay her eggs. That’s one reason people so often see turtles near roads this time of year, they like to dig holes in the gravel to bury their eggs. They also migrate between wetlands to mate and feed.

As I carried it, the turtle flailed its feet, rubbing against my fingers with the top of its scaly back feet. Fortunately, it was impossible for the turtle to claw me, because it had some big claws, which it uses for digging.

Also, the turtle peed on me. The pee landed on my shoes, and it smelled really bad…

Another snapping turtle I've found on my road, this one bigger. September 2015.

Another snapping turtle I’ve found on my road, this one bigger, wet and slippery. It made it across the road on its own. September 2015.

As soon as I set the snapper down, it turned and hissed at me. It wasn’t my friend. It wasn’t about to thank me, but the three ladies did. They thanked me profusely, in fact, before climbing back into their SUV and continuing on their way. It was nice to see that they cared enough about the turtle to stop and try to save it.

Before leaving the turtle in peace, I took a few photos. And ever since, I’ve been a keeping an eye out for it (and other turtles) on the road. I hope you do, too!

If you do come across a snapping turtle, you don’t have to pick it up in order to save it. If you’re patient and the road you’re on is straight and not busy, you can simply park the car in front of the turtle and tell other drivers to go around it as it makes its way across the road. It will get there, eventually.

Another option is to use a shovel to lift it a few inches off the road and bring it to the same side it was headed to originally. (This is important, or the turtle will just end up trying to cross the road again.)

Turtle tail!

Turtle tail!

Whatever you do… don’t not pick a turtle up by its tail. If you do, you’ll likely damage the turtle’s vertebral column and tail. 

If you’re nervous about dealing with the turtle or you’re on a busy road, simply drive around it and hope that other drivers will be paying attention and do the same. Your safety comes first.

Here’s a good YouTube video I found showing how I moved the turtle by picking it up by the back of the shell, as well as other ways to move a snapping turtle without harming it:

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at