Doing Dumb Stuff With Animals Top 10 Countdown, #5: Wrestling With an Alligator Snapper

Photo by James Conniff

The following is part of a top ten list written originally for The Times (London) by Richard Conniff from his new book Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals (W.W. Norton).

We were out on a lake in northern Louisiana where the tupelo gums and bald cypresses grew close together, and the water around the trunks mirrored each tree perfectly, so our boat seemed to be suspended in middle space, a forest underfoot as well as overhead. We were hauling a hoop net to the surface, and the alligator snapping turtle inside didn’t like it. He clamped his jaw on the gunwale as if to shred the aluminum. Then the tattered remains of the baitfish swung into range. The turtle’s mouth closed on the skull, and the hollow sound of bone caving in echoed around the boat.

“This is real stressful for him,” the biologist said, which, under the circumstances, was either wonderfully magnanimous or pure projection. He reached in and grabbed hold of a hind leg. The turtle’s shell was two feet long, and he weighed 95 pounds. He had a head like a rottweiler, 23 inches around. We flipped him onto his back, and his wrinkly, tubercled underflesh was stained rust colored. He made a low, irritated hissing sound, like a scuba diver exhaling. “Keep an eye on him,” the biologist advised. “’cause if you forget he’s there, he’ll remind you.”