Saturday, November 3, 2018


Art work by Paul Schexnayder

Yesterday, while riding along Hwy. 182 en route to New Iberia from Broussard, Louisiana, we whizzed past a ditch filled with water where a police car was parked. The police officer seemed to be arguing with a man holding a rope to which a turtle was tied. I only caught a glimpse of the turtle but could see the spiked shell and thick scaled tail of a huge alligator turtle. If I had satisfied my curiosity, I’d have asked the driver to stop, but thought I might get embroiled in some kind of endangered species argument. I’ve read that alligator turtles aren’t labeled as “endangered” in Louisiana right now, but they are over harvested for their meat. For all I know, the man holding the rope could have just caught his supper and was being chastised for fishing in a highway ditch. 

I’ve been interested in these primitive-looking turtles since I read that they were plentiful on Last Island during the 19th century and that their weight was reported to top 200-400 pounds. They also lived to be 50-100 years old. Several years ago, when I was writing The Kajun Kween, a young adult book, the alligator turtle became a challenge for Petite Marie Melancon, the heroine of a comic strip who caught one in a hoop net, and New Iberia’s famous local illustrator, Paul Schexnayder, painted a picture of her holding the critter by its tail.

Alligator turtles hardly ever come on land, except when the females want to lay their eggs, and November is the wrong season for egg laying, so I’m wondering why the turtle I saw ventured into a roadside ditch, unless the world was “too much with [her]” and she was near the 100-year old mark. After all, some hardy alligator turtles live to be several hundred years old, especially in southwest Louisiana.

According to Petite Marie, who read extensively before going on an adventure to catch an alligator turtle, in the 1800’s, a man named James Cathcart was sent to Last Island, Louisiana to survey timber suitable for making U.S. vessels, and he found fishermen catching 300-lb. turtles at the rate of five alligator turtles a day. They were selling them for $7 apiece and kept them in pens until buyers showed up. Petite Marie figured she’d be lucky if she caught a 50 pounder. However, she managed to net a huge one, and her fishing companions severed its head, placed it in a bucket of water, stuck a twig in its mouth, and the head clamped down on the twig. Petite tells us that the movement of the head was only a reflex but it must have been a frightening sight.

Of course, this is only a replay of a fictional account, but as we zoomed past the snapping turtle on a rope, I admit to being spooked enough not to turn my head for a backward glance. My mother often made turtle soup for her family of five children, but I think the turtle was probably a soft shell turtle my intrepid father had caught in the Bogue Chitto River and beheaded before he brought it home sans head for my mother to cook.

No comments: