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Turtle trap: Driving's dark side

2012-12-28 07:55

HEADING FOR DESTRUCTION: University student Nathan Weaver (right) leaves his plastic turtle in peril on a main road in South Carolina. The worst happened quickly...

JEFFREY COLLINS

CLEMSON, South Carolina - A Clemson University student who set out to determine how to help turtles cross the road ended up getting a glimpse into the dark souls of some humans.

Nathan Weaver put a realistic rubber turtle in the middle of a lane on a busy road near his campus. Then he watched over the next hour as seven drivers deliberately ran over the fake animal. Several more tried, but missed.

Weaver, a 22-year-old student at Clemson's School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences, said: "I've heard of people and from friends who knew people that ran over turtles but to see it out here like this was a bit shocking."

'THEY AREN'T THINKING...'

To seasoned researchers, the practice wasn't surprising.

The number of box turtles in the US is in slow decline and one big reason is that many wind up as roadkill while crossing the asphalt, a slow-and-steady trip that can take several minutes. (Just like on the N7 north out of Cape Town, where truckers routinely adjust their trajectory to crush a tortoise, or the taxi driver I saw swerve deliberately into a flock of pigeons feeding on spilled grain on the N1 freeway outside Cape Town Harbour. - Editor)

Hal Herzog, a Western Carolina University psychology professor said that humans feel a need to prove their dominance on the planet by taking a two-ton vehicle and squishing a defenceless creature under the tyres. "They aren't thinking, really," he added. "It is not something people think about. It just seems fun at the time. It's the dark side of human nature."

SAVING THE POPULATION

Herzog, author of a book about humans' relationships with animals called "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat", asked a class of about 110 students preparing for a final exam whether they had intentionally run over a turtle, or been in a car with someone who did.

Thirty-four raised a hands, about two-thirds of them male.

Weaver, who became interested in animals and conservation through the Boy Scouts and TV's "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin (killed by a stingray), wants to figure out the best way to get turtles safely across the road and keep the population from dwindling further.

Among the possible solutions: turtle underpasses or an education campaign aimed at teenagers on "why drivers shouldn't mow down turtles".

The first time Weaver went out to collect data on turtles he chose a spot down the road from a large block of flats that caters to students. He counted 267 vehicles that passed by, seven of them intentionally hitting his rubber reptile.

He went back out a week later, choosing a road in a more suburban area. The second of the 50 cars to pass by that day swerved over the centre line, its right tyres flattening the plastic shell.

"Wow! That didn't take long," Weaver said.

SNAKES ARE TARGETS, TOO

Other cars during the hour missed the turtle but right after his observation period was up, before he could retrieve the model, another car moved to the right to hit the animal as he stood less than six metres away.

"One hit in 50 cars is pretty significant when you consider it might take a turtle 10 minutes to cross the road," Weaver said.

Weaver's professor, Rob Baldwin, said a turtle took seven or eight years to mature enough to breed. In that time it might make several trips across a road to get from one pond to another, looking for food or, later, a place to lay eggs. A female turtle that lives 50 years might lay more than 100 eggs per season but only two or three are likely to survive to reproduce.

Snakes are also run over deliberately; Baldwin wishes that wasn't so and he understands the widespread fear and loathing of snakes, but why anyone would want to run over turtles is a mystery to the professor.

"They seem so helpless and cute," he said. "I want to stop and help them. My kids want to stop and help them. My wife will stop and help turtles no matter how much traffic there is on the road. I can't understand the idea why you would swerve to hit something so helpless."

So, would you (have you?) run over a tortoise or a snake? If you don't get your jollies that way, then tell us what you think of such drivers in our Readers' Comments section below or email Wheels24.

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