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The Cantor softshell turtle (maybe)

A rare occurence in a world that runs short of wildness


August 09, 2016

1 Image
    I was on my way to the doctor last month when I very nearly hit what looked like a large, pink-grey rock in the middle of Country Club Road. I pulled over, intent on moving it, but when I got out of my car and approached it, I quickly realized it was no rock. It was, in fact, animate.
    I was so spooked that I got back into my car, and had to give myself a pep talk. When I felt brave enough, I approached it again.
    It was more than two feet wide, and longer than that. It was flat and spread out, like a stack of pancakes.  
    At first I thought it was an armadillo: Its flesh was that naked dolphin-flipper color and appeared to have that same rubbery texture. But the thing had webbed feet and a horizontal, bobbing neck, like a turtle’s. Its nose was long and pointed, like an anteater’s, though a bit abbreviated. Its nostrils were large and oblong, too, like a pig’s.
    Another driver pulled up and stopped, put her flashers on and joined me in the middle of the road, peering down at the animal.
    “What is it?” I asked, almost whispering.
    She was also confused, but unlike me, she did not seem to be afraid. “I think it’s a turtle?” she said, like a question. “He sure is ugly, but I think he’s a turtle.”
    At this point, cars were lining up on either side of us, annoyed by the spectacle. The young man in the red pickup truck to my right was drumming impatiently on his steering wheel and staring at us with his eyebrows knitted. We did not have time to truly investigate our strange visitor; we just needed to move him out of harm’s way.
     “You get the front, I’ll get the back,” she said, and together, we lifted the large creature out of the road and onto the grass of the country club. Then we both got into our cars and drove away. Traffic trudged slowly on.
     A while later, in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had seen, and what weight I had lifted. It had felt so strange: neither warm nor cold, and covered in flesh, but very firm, like a floating patella or an elbow. It kept still in the hammock of our hands, without flailing or trying to bite us. If the thing had claws, I did not even notice them.
    In that waiting room, I tried desperately to identify the blob in the road. Based on the only image I could find that resembled the animal, I concluded that he must have been a Cantor’s giant softshell turtle, which is a massive, endangered species native to Southeast Asia. Were I right, it wouldn’t survive long in the sandy, pine-strewn stretches of inland, Southeast Georgia.
    Following my appointment, I drove back to the country club and spent an hour looking for my new friend, hoping I wouldn’t be asked to leave or accused of trespassing. I repeatedly combed the area where I’d left the seemingly slow-moving thing, squinting into hydrangea clusters and drainage pipes, but found nothing.  
    A little while later, I called the country club to let them know what I’d seen. I expected to be laughed at, but the woman I spoke to was fascinated and kind, and assured me that she would ask her grounds crew to keep an eye out.
    Later that night, my partner, who had never seen me fixate so wholly on any one thing and who is far better at Googling than I am, did some research. Turns out I had mostly likely encountered a Florida softshell turtle, which are native, sometimes live in ditch creeks, and apparently are very common water turtles.
    Although this is obviously the only explanation that makes any real sense, I still maintain that the photograph of the Cantor’s softshell turtle is a far more accurate depiction of the creature that my neighbor and I helped across the street.
    He was an amorphous, pink-gray blob, whose shell and face and feet all seemed to melt together, lacking definition or shadow. The Florida softshell turtle is darker, and greener in color, appearing to be covered with algae, and its neck is too long and upright, like that of a brontosaurus.
    But whatever it was we moved off of the street that morning, I was so surprised by it that I couldn’t even classify the creature, and that sense of confusion and wonder when approaching another living species is hard to come by in this day and age.
    For people like me, who fall asleep to David Attenborough documentaries and spend their spare time in natural history museums or studying the most obscure of deep sea creatures, encountering an unimaginable species is not unlike experiencing something supernatural: It was frightening, and magnetic, and consuming.
    Such discovery forces the mind to open. That these magnificent, bizarre animals exist naturally in the weed-strewn drainage ditches that run aside most major roads here in Statesboro is nothing short of miraculous to me. That I held him, and he remained peaceful in my hands, was otherworldly.
    I’ve heard rumors that he is alive and well, still frequenting the grounds of the country club. I look for him every time I drive past there, but I am looking for other surprises, too: a further glimpse into the hidden, living world, a peek behind that veil.

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