C.W. Gusewell


A crush can get a crawler crushed

After thirst and hunger, the urge to copulate must be the most powerful impulse of all.

It’s a desire so compelling that some human beings – men in particular – are willing to risk their careers, their reputations or financial ruin to satisfy it.

In nature, the cost is even greater.

Box turtles, salamanders, red crawfish and other species of wild creatures pay with their lives.

We’re getting on now toward the time for turtles on country roads. They’re not ramblers by nature, but spring is their season for procreation.

The females lay very few eggs each year and must search out a suitable and safe place for the enterprise. Box turtle hatchlings are vulnerable to predators, and only one or two may survive.

The males may be obliged to leave their home territory to go prospecting for a mate. And that can require crossing roads.

It goes without saying that turtles are no match for a 4,000-pound machine traveling 50 miles an hour or more, which explains why their numbers seem to be declining.

When I was a boy, you were apt to come across one or two of them on almost any walk in a woods or field. A pair lived several years in my parents’ basement, eating lettuce and tomatoes and raw hamburger, and supplementing their diet with the occasional water bug.

Though not very communicative, they were agreeable enough company.

In these later years, we’ve seen them on the two-lane roads in the neighborhood of our farm, though less often now. More than once I’ve observed some brainless lout deliberately swerve his car to crush a turtle.

My daughters have a sharp eye for them, and we’ve stopped for every one we’ve seen, to carry it off the pavement into an adjoining field and send it safely on its quest.

Even caterpillars, if they’re large enough to be spotted, get the same service.

Recently I saw an article about a group of conservation-minded folks in Mississippi who go out on rainy spring nights to help salamanders – sometimes hundreds of them – cross a heavily traveled parkway to reach the ponds that are the traditional location for their once-a-year matings.

Smaller than turtles but larger than most caterpillars, salamanders are rather colorful little amphibians – some spotted, some striped.

Though often mistaken for tiny lizards, they are members of an entirely different family.

These migrants I’ve mentioned all benefit from possessing a certain amount of charm – which always and everywhere is a survival advantage.

That can’t be said for all endangered road-crossers.

Several years ago I was invited to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for a week of lecturing to student journalists. My visit coincided with what may be one of the world’s most inglorious migrations.

I was told repeatedly of the virtues of the Louisiana red swamp crayfish as table fare – a Cajun favorite.

But when they come boiling out of the marshes and streams in their mating season, they blanket roadways entirely in a living mat of red. Crushed under tires, they turn the pavement to a gooey, slimy mess.

Vehicles were reported to be sliding, spinning, careening into ditches. Crawdad alerts appeared in the newspaper and on television.

Most eating places featured them on the menu as a seasonal delicacy. Whole ones, that is – not the squashed kind.

I wouldn’t know. I didn’t try them. Nor was I tempted to be out helping some of those creeping little beasts make their way to the preferred location for their trysts.

I understand the difficulties faced by endangered travelers. But my sympathy is selective. And I found I had trouble connecting emotionally with crawdads.