Of Aid to Lesser Creatures
[élan March 2006]
For some years now I've had a bumper sticker that says Lights Out! Sea Turtles Dig the Dark, not just for its usefulness in finding my ubiquitous green Jeep in parking lots, either. I happen to love sea turtles. I think it's tragic that only one in a thousand may make it to adulthood.
A sea turtle mommy will travel thousands of miles to lay her eggs on the same beach where she herself hatched. This goes way beyond instinct; magnetic fields, maybe? No one really knows, but if helping them survive is as simple as turning out artificial lights, we should do it.
Baby sea turtles are like jewels, so small and satiny; it's almost spellbinding to feel their tiny azure legs sweep across your palm as you carry them from the dunes to a sandy spot near the surf. You can't put them right in the water; they must make tracks on the sand imprinting the spot so to find their way back. Try to remember this if you're ever lucky enough to be at the beach when they break open their shells--all at once, another mysterious feat. They're nearsighted on land and will head for the closest horizon; this is why they need to be directed toward the ocean.
I do what I can to support the cause of lesser creatures. Back in the 70s I was only too happy to sport my Save the Darter Snail tee shirt sent by relatives in Knoxville who were against the construction of a nuclear reactor facility. Imagine a tiny fish holding back the Tennessee Valley Authority. Those of us who grew up near D.C. heard a lot about another endangered species--whooping cranes, as they were being bred in captivity at the nearby Patuxent Research Refuge. You can see them online now-- all folded up and cute in an ugly duckling way. The tallest birds in North America, there were only 16 "whoopers" known to exist in the 40s; 149 were counted in 1995.
Conservationists will go to great lengths to protect "whoopers," including dressing up like one to lure it back to the refuge. While I never did this, my husband once said I resembled a whooping crane. To be fair, we were playing an avian variation on that Barbara Walters question, if you were a tree, what kind would you be? When I asked why, he coughed and said, because you are graceful and unique. Whereas my daughter piped up, "I think it's the noise they make, Mom."
Speaking of unusual sounds, a toad in Houston that rings like a bell just made the government's endangered list. In our pond we have spring peepers that chirp like baby birds, and bullfrogs that twang like loose banjo strings, but the garden toads don't seem to be musically gifted. We call them mean old toads because our Border collie, Cory, is afraid of them and won't go out the kitchen door if she detects one lurking beneath the nasturtiums. This is a dog who will fearlessly seek out a 6-foot black snake that's trying to find it's way inside, but a mean old toad will cause her to boing like a pogo.
Cory has a special call-to-arms bark that tells us there's a snake slinking along the base of the house, feathering the stones with its long thin tongue, looking for a way in, and she'll stand guard until the snake is deterred. How do you waylay a snake if you're not of the where's my gun mentality? Grasp it tightly behind its head and carry it off at arm's length. We like to take them to the big barn at the back of the property. I say we, but I won't grab a snake. I resort to the good old-fashioned broom. It takes awhile to sweep a heavy snake off the end of the porch, but it can be done. Since they tend to coil up when constantly badgered by the business end of the broom, with luck and determination they can be flipped into an upturned trash can and off you go at a dead run. This is because a snake can breakaway over the edge of plastic before you get the gate open. It's exhilarating.
There are over a thousand animal and plant species listed as endangered in the world; 63 in Virginia alone. While black snakes may never make that list, I like the work they do, as long as it's not on my doorstep. Dr. Doolittle talked to animals; Walt Whitman wanted to go and live with the animals. I'm doing a bit of both.
Dr. Louis Leakey famously said, “I want to know who I am and what it was that made me that way.” And so do I. But first, a disclaimer: