The Nation's Pulse

Turtle Summer

A reluctant champ and struggling terrapins.

By 7.8.09

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SEA ISLE, N.J. -- I felt like JonBenet's mother (during the good years) last week at the dog show up on the boardwalk. Simba, our golden retriever, repeated his prize-winning performance from the week before ("Best of Show") and brought home another first-place blue ribbon, this time for "Best Groomed," but it'll probably be his last beauty contest.

Decked out in a new July Fourth bandanna with colored and sparkly fireworks, Simba looked like a champ. But he definitely couldn't have won in the best-behaved category. Doing his donkey routine, he sat down, pulled his head out of his collar and ran the other way when it was his turn to prance around in front of the crowd. And that's even with me putting dog biscuits in my pockets before the show so he'd stick by my side (remember when Richard Nixon used to rub meat smells on bottom of his trousers so his dog would act like he liked him during photo ops?).

Tired of being eyed up and down like a piece of meat, Simba started growling at the other dogs, many of which were dressed in outlandish get-ups such as lobster suits and fishermen's raincoats and hats.

Simba was a finalist along with two other dogs for "Best of Show," but he wouldn't enter the ring without his regular girlfriend, Chloe. A judge was overheard saying that Simba was "the best dog but the kids are all around the bulldog, so let's give it to the bulldog." Simba breathed a sigh of relief and ran off to the beach at top speed with his buddies, Chloe and Jasmine. Like his namesake, Simba was born free.

In other animal news, it's turning out to be a bad year for our local diamondback turtles. Road kills here in Cape May County jumped by more than 50 percent last year, and turtle deaths so far this year are on pace with last year's 575 documented road kills.

The problem is that diamondback terrapins get pregnant and amble out of the bay marshes to cross the roads in order to lay their eggs on higher ground at the exact time that seashore traffic is hitting its peak.

Researchers at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor monitored traffic last July along a stretch of Stone Harbor Boulevard that's a popular crossing spot for turtles. "We found that a vehicle would pass by once every four seconds in one direction or the other," reported Dr. Roger Wood, director of research at the institute. "On weekends or holidays, a vehicle went by every two seconds. The odds of a terrapin getting across the road in that circumstance is pretty close to zero."

Last week, a pregnant terrapin showed up on our sidewalk, making her way to lay her eggs. She had to cross three roads to get from the bay to the ocean. Simba's persistent barking alerted us to her presence. He'd never seen what looked to him like a rock walking down our sidewalk.

When we looked to see what the commotion was about, Simba was crouched down with his chin on the sidewalk, nose-to-nose with a determined terrapin who had places to go.

To get back to the bay, the newly hatched turtles, about 10 weeks from now, have the same three roads to cross. So it'll take nine successful road crossings for this terrapin and her offspring just to make it alive through this single breeding cycle.

For the pregnant terrapins that don't make it, the Wetlands Institute has round-the-clock road patrols in June and July during which research interns remove potentially viable eggs from road-killed turtles to be incubated and hatched.

The hatchlings are then "head-started" at a turtle farm at Richard Stockton College and released into the marshes. They're released at night so they have less chance of becoming snacks for sea gulls.

What saved the terrapins the last time they were in big trouble was Prohibition. Overhunting for the diamondbacks, considered a gourmet delicacy by the fans of turtle soup and turtle stew, had nearly reduced the turtles' population to extinction. With sherry in short supply, the ingredient that gives turtle soup its zip, people switched to chicken noodle and the local population of terrapins recovered.

It helped that the Great Depression occurred concurrently with Prohibition, reducing the number of trips to the beach and the number of turtle-smashing cars on seashore roads.

This time around, it looks like the friends of terrapins have come up with a solution that's way simpler than no alcohol and no jobs. All along the coast, people are now installing foot-high fencing on both sides of the road to keep the turtles safe from cars. So obvious! What took them so long?

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.