How to help a turtle cross the road
During late spring and early summer, turtles are on the go. They are mating, nesting, and traveling around. This means that you are much more likely to see a turtle trying to cross the road right now. What to do? Should you get out and help it, or let it make its own way across? The answer, of course, is it depends. Here are a few tips on how to help a turtle cross the road safely.
The cardinal rule of turtle crossings: maintain travel direction of the turtle
If you decide you need to help a turtle get across a road, make sure that you note which direction it is facing. When you move it, make sure to place it on the side of the road it was traveling toward. If you put it back on the original side, it is likely to try crossing again. What if no one is there to help it next time around?
An eastern painted turtle hesitates as it makes its way along. It's facing diagonally across the road, but clearly trying to move from right to left.
To help or not to help?
If you see a turtle moving right along, and the road is not busy, it's best to stop or slow down and simply observe it to make sure it gets across. Less interference is better whenever possible.
However, if the turtle has stopped, or is just beginning to cross, you might decide to assist it. First, make sure that you are not putting yourself or others in danger by pulling over to help the turtle.
Pull over to a safe area before getting out of your vehicle. Carefully and slowly approach the turtle to ascertain its species and decide what you are going to do with it before picking it up or moving it.
The hamburger hold
If it is anything other than a snapping turtle, you are safe to pick up the turtle carefully with two hands on each side of its shell, as if you were picking up a hamburger:
This is the "half hamburger hold," which I am demonstrating while I take a photo with my other hand. Normally, you'd use both hands to gently but firmly hold the turtle.
Hold firmly and try to keep the turtle level so as not to frighten it more than it already is. Two warnings: first, the turtle may not retreat into its shell as the one pictured has; it might flap its legs around and try to dislodge your hold. Turtles have strong, sharp claws, so be prepared. They won't hurt you, but it can be startling and surprisingly strong. Second, sometimes turtles eject urine when they are surprised or scared, so hold the turtle away from you in case it lets go when you pick it up.
Pick up the turtle and move it to the side of the road where it was pointed. If you are on a road with ditches, and can cross the ditch, you might put it on the far side of the ditch so that it is more likely to continue traveling away from the road. If not, just place it in a safe-looking spot.
A few common eastern turtle species
Here are a few photos of a box turtle, which is an upland-dwelling turtle. In other words, it lives in the woods for the most part, and not in the water. It's not a swimmer. You can easily identify the box turtle by its high, domed shell, orange coloring, and its ability to completely close its shell. If you are helping a box turtle to cross the road, don't put it in water. Set it on dry land somewhere.
Box turtle. Note the high domed shell.📷
Box turtle carapace.
A box turtle that has completely closed up its shell and drawn all appendages inside. This is a telltale identification behavior.
The box turtle's plastron, or belly plate. Note the hinge to the right of center, which allows it to draw up the chest plate.
No one is getting in here!
Eastern painted turtles, by contrast, live in and near water. They have a flatter profile, and their shells are fixed. They have red markings around the edges of the shell and red stripes on their arms, neck, and tail.
Eastern painted turtle. Note red stripes and the open shell structure, even when it has retreated as far as it can go.
Eastern painted turtle plastron. You can easily see the red markings around the edge of the shell from underneath.
Snapping turtles can be much larger than either of the two species above, weighing 10-20 lbs. They are more gnarly looking and have a sharp, hooked beak. They are more uniformly colored in hues of gray, green and brown. Snapping turtles can occasionally be aggressive, and their particularly long necks allow them to reach out and quickly bite at prey (or you, if you are not careful).
A big old snapper.
Snapping turtle. Note the spiky protrusions at the back of the shell and the very long, strong tail.
Special instructions for helping snapping turtles cross the road
If you come across a snapper trying to cross the road, see if you can wait for it to cross on its own. If not, and if you feel comfortable assisting it, there is a special way to handle a snapper.
Using two hands, grasp the back of the shell just above the tail (the part with the spikes shown in the photo above). There is sometimes a handy flat protrusion or shelf here instead. Never pick up a snapper by the tail. Its vertebrae are fused to the inside of the shell and continue down through the tail. By picking it up by the tail, you could damage it or dislocate its spine. They can be quite heavy, and it's a lot of weight to hang by the tail. Always use the shell.
Also, never use the "hamburger hold" with a snapping turtle, because its long, mobile neck and lighting reflexes allow it to reach its head out and back to snap you with its beak.
If the snapper is too heavy, or getting feisty, you can use your car's floor mat, a blanket, a snow shovel if you haven't taken it out of your car since winter, or even a stick from the side of the road to drag the turtle across. Check out this very helpful video from the Toronto Zoo demonstrating how to help a snapper across the road.
Go forth and help the turtles confidently
There you have it - a few tips for how to help a turtle cross the road. Now you know what to do. It is a very satisfying feeling to help a turtle and also quite fascinating to see one up close. Good luck!