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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Unintended Consequences

She kicked hard, flailing her sturdy legs madly, just missing my restraining hands.  She didn't have much of a range of motion because of her shell, but that didn't stop her from trying, stretching her neck around to snap at my fingers.  Once her hind leg kicked my wrist, and I was startled by how strong she was.  I had a good grip, however, and what happened next was my decision, not hers.

The turtle in my hands was a red-eared slider.  Like me, she was a native of the eastern half of the country.  I had come west a quarter-century ago, seeking broader horizons, while she had arrived here thanks to the pet trade. Whether she had once been released by a well-meaning but misguided pet owner who no longer wanted her, or had been born wild herself, I couldn't tell.

Red-eared slider, Trachemys scripta, basking in non-native waters.

It's against the law in many states to release non-native pets, and red-eared sliders are not even legally sold in Oregon in the first place.  But they're here, and they have found Oregon's waters to be enough like home to settle down and raise large families.  We don't really know all the potential consequences of this, although there is evidence that the native turtles don't do well once they're forced to share their space with this new arrival. 

My scientific permits specify that I cannot release any non-native turtles if I catch them.  This is meant to help remove the invaders, and give the native species a better chance of survival.  It isn't about just the individuals, or even individual species, but the sum of all the plants and animals, and the unique communities they form.  These communities can affect how water flows, how frequently and severe wild fires will burn, and whether soil will be swept away before the wind.  These processes are of fundamental importance to our well-being, if not our very survival.

I hold another set of permits, this set from the university.  These specify how I must handle individual animals in order to reduce any pain or suffering.  I have stated exactly how I'll keep any sliders I catch, and for how long, before delivering them to the state veterinarian for what amounts to their execution.  Under those conditions, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee gave me permission to proceed.  This set of permits is not at all concerned about ecological processes, but it is deeply concerned with the welfare of individuals.

There are very good reasons for both permits.

Turtle trap with red-eared slider inside.

Personally, I happen to really like animals.  I happily share my house with two dogs and a geriatric cat and there would be more if it didn't mean serious strife with my husband.  We raise sheep and goats, and the fact we slaughter our own meat makes us acutely aware that living beings are individuals, each with their own perspective and purpose.  I do not take killing lightly.

As a professional, I am only too aware to how careless introductions have changed everything from the composition of trees in the forests in much of the country to the soil dynamics beneath my feet.  I don't know if red-eared sliders will end up being the biological equivalents of neutron bombs in Oregon's aquatic systems, although they will have impacts.  I suspect probably not, although other invasive species may deserve the comparison.  However, I am not a policy maker, and it is not my call.  The law, and my permits, are clear.

Yet it is amazing how the ancient instructions for life have adapted these turtles to an utterly new place, one dominated by humans.  Sliders are doing fine here, and may do better still as the Pacific Northwest climate shifts to warmer and drier weather.  At some point, we may need to choose based on what can exist in the future, rather than what existed in the past.  The changes we're bringing about on our planet are so great that asking these questions is no longer only the business of theoreticians.  What do we want our future world to look like, given our past actions, and the choices we now have?

That is the big picture.  The small picture is me, holding this turtle, next to a drainage ditch near the airport, on a cool overcast windy day.

It isn't the turtle's fault.  She was only following the instincts that have carried her kind forward for millions of years before she swam into the trap baited with overripe sardines.  I personally didn't bring her here.  All that matters now, however, is that I have caught her, and what happens next is solely my decision.

I do what I must, based on what I know and what I have agreed to do, and she goes in a plastic bin filled with an inch of ditch water.  I wish her a quick and painless death as I look out over the landscape she won't see again.  I lug the sloshing bin to the truck.  It is a good deal heavier than a five-pound turtle, a gallon or so of water, and the container.  I am also weighed down with the ethical costs of undoing what never should have been done in the first place.

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