Two Disappeared, One Died, and We Let One Go

“Everyone says you can eat the little ones.”

It wasn’t immediately clear to me what the women were discussing. Five or so, they perched on open car trunks, paying a threadbare sort of attention to their fishing lines, drifting slack in the overflow at the Everglades’ eastern edge. We were all stuck on the border between Broward and Palm Beach counties.

“The other day I caught one. I was out here barefoot trying to get that damn turtle, probably got about five pounds of meat out of him.”

Sitting on my own car, watching the sunset over the water, I remembered releasing my last turtle, before I moved and began the fourth grade in a new town. At the time, it seemed like a favor.

To this day, the turtles remain my only pets. But they never seemed to settle in. Four red-eared sliders, they really only enjoyed making a tower of themselves, their flat undersides balancing precariously on the lower turtle’s rounded shell. Their little claws, which hurt when you tried to cuddle them, waved unsuccessfully in quarter-inch loops. Entertaining to watch the first few times, it only got more and more impressive to a seven year old, as I concluded that I had been blessed with my own troupe of extraordinarily talented circus acrobat turtles.

Then my father suggested that perhaps they were trying to escape.

In over two decades of marriage, he’s learned enough Spanish from my mother to get by should he ever get lost in Bogota, and enough to translate “Free the turtles” to “Libre las tortugas,” which he chanted offhand for months. I refused. They were my only pets, even if they didn’t seem to want to be. Then my hand was forced by the “disappearance” of two turtles, and the subsequent death of the third, which I actually witnessed. My parents weren’t able to also pass it off as a masterful turtle-napping in an attempt to spare my feelings.

Left alone, the last turtle had nothing to do. No other turtles to climb on. A confusing glass tank to roam alone. Just before we left the house I’d spent most of my childhood in, we released it into a nearby pond.

“Two disappeared, one died, and we let one go,” became something to recite, when someone asked me whether or not I had pets. It continues to surprise me that, given my casual recitation of these kind of alarming facts, I had friends.

The phrase should actually go like this: “three died of natural causes, and we’re wholly responsible for the fourth becoming a meal somewhere.” For Floridian human or Floridian beast? Inconclusive, like the relationship between the two.

Sometimes this state is proud of an animal, like Key deer, a pink flamingo, or Mickey Mouse. Sometimes we hunt it, kill it before it reproduces, and call it good eatin’.

***

Some Floridians have pets far more worrying than turtles. Then they set them free.

“They start out as pets and they just get too big!” said one newscaster, referring to the apex predators and “dietary generalists” that roam underfoot in the Florida Everglades, currently home to anywhere between 30 and 300,000 Burmese pythons.

Florida does have a solution. Sponsored by the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, the 2016 Python Challenge (™!) is coming. At the 2013 challenge, 68 pythons were caught by 1600 participants — many first time hunters, receiving cash prizes for the biggest and best.

But it seems the pythons are here to stay. They’re so well camouflaged in the murky waters and tall grasses that they can coil around your boots with their 20-foot bodies cozily and almost silently. It makes them excellent ambush hunters, except in the notable case of a python that swallowed an alligator whole in 2005. The gator then burst free from the python. Google it. It’s like a brochure for the end times.

 

If that doesn’t give you the urge to go out and gun these invasives down, you can still help by reporting exotic species sightings to 888-IVE-GOT-1, which I think might have been developed by the ingenious minds behind whocanisue.com.

You can also report a lionfish, which, like the Burmese python, has no natural predators. Female lionfish release up to 30,000 eggs per spawn, which they can do, in a warmer climate, every four days.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, you can spear lionfish, or catch them with a reel, or in a hand-held net (but watch out for eighteen venomous spines). There are Lionfish Derbies, Lionfish Tournaments, and Lionfish Safaris. Invasive species, mothers of invention.

There is no recreational or commercial harvest limit for lionfish, even though you can be arrested for catching most other fish even a shade of an inch under the size limit. Hunt it and eat it before it has the opportunity to create 30,000 baby lionfish. That’s Florida.

Yes, it’s legal (and safe) to consume said venomous lionfish. At Lazy Days in Marathon, lionfish is a popular menu item, yet the restaurant, which will cook your catch, finds that patrons rarely bring in their own. One lionfish looms over diners, a life-size cast painted and lacquered, the name of the local taxidermist on a plaque by its side. The restaurant is ringed with the glassy-eyed fish—hog fish, marlin, goliath grouper (a large spotted fish half my body size), and a wimpy looking hammerhead shark pointing to the bar.

***

Usually, a shark doesn’t seem so innocuous. Two years ago, I took a helicopter ride over the Keys. The ocean is so extraordinarily clear, patterned in sharply defined patches of turquoise shallow water, brown water over sea grasses, and impenetrable deep blue. In the shallow gulf waters, tiny sharks circled each other.

From the helicopter, they looked like gummy sharks. Then the pilot said, “For you to see them from up here, those have got to be huge!” His rough estimate was between eight and fourteen feet.

In the Keys, loosely connected by a two lane highway and a series of bridges, you rarely lose sight of the sea. It’s very common to just pull off the road and jump in the shallows. You can set up a full scale tent, or just drift there, alongside your floating cooler, your vodka and coke and your three small children.

Some of the sharks couldn’t have been more than fifty feet from the shoreline.

Two days earlier, mini lobster season had opened, and hundreds of amateurs, professionals, and enthusiasts dove from their boats to chase lobsters like children set loose on the White House Easter Egg Hunt. The waters were empty now, save for schools of gummy sharks. Where the boats had been, the sharks now circled, gamboling, perhaps playing an ironic game of Sharks and Minnows.

So—did the people stay away because of the sharks that day? It’s usually more true that the sharks stay away from the people, as do the gators, as do the snakes. As frightening as a python swallowing a gator who’s probably swallowed some pythons in its lifetime is, the danger of running into such beasts is vastly exaggerated, unless you’re actively hunting for it.

Growing up, I used to climb in a van with my best friend’s family and spend a weekend in Arcadia, central Florida, in a house on stilts on the Peace River. Paddling down the river in a canoe, we used to play a game called “Log or gator?” No one really wins. You just find out who’s right by throwing a rock at it.

We also used to swim in that river. But it wasn’t a completely insane idea, given that the gators generally stay away from the noise of habitation.

Then again, sometimes they don’t.

***

Last February, my college dorm was papered with flyers: “Falling icicles—sharp!” Then they added caution tape so no one would walk directly below the roof’s edge. Sometimes, huge clumps of snow will come hurtling over the edge of the roof, avalanche-like.

This past summer, before I returned to school, I drove out to watch the sun set over the Everglades. Sitting on the edge of my car, I listened to talk of turtle hunting, already missing the perennial Floridian sauna. I watched a spiny ridge break the surface of the water. Just a bumpy dark line, any twig, any branch — then a telltale bump-dip-bump emerged as well: eyes, and a snout.

Sometimes it’s a log. Sometimes it’s a gator.

The sunset had faded into a pale blue, seared with the orange of traffic cones, University of Florida’s colors. Even the sun sets in Gator style.

To my right, the women continued talking about their forays into the turtle meat industry. “You should have seen him in my car, he was fucking humongous!” one exclaimed. But alas, a missed opportunity: “I should have killed him fresh for eating,” she said, describing his escape.

To my left, a pair of dad bros hovered over five elementary age kids, making sad sandcastles out of the dirty gray slush where the canal mixed with decomposing tropical vegetation.

Dad One began to tell me about a national wildlife refuge area. “There’s alligators there. You can’t swim there. Anytime you swim in a lake, you have a chance of hitting an alligator.”

Dad Two, by this point, had waded to the exact halfway point between the shore and the alligator. The alligator couldn’t really have been more than twenty feet from shore, where it swam back and forth, lazily. Another gator watched it from fifteen feet farther down the canal. “If you come here when there’s less people, they’re just chillin’. Thousands of them,” added Dad One, helpfully.

We watched the gator swim back and forth, in a parallel circuit. Dad Two moved closer, kicking into the water to create ripples, hoping to draw the gator closer.

“Back off, Shawn!” called Dad One, who was only now becoming concerned. But he left Shawn to his own devices, turning to his kids. “Get back by the truck, c’mon, they’ll eat you for lunch! C’mere, Bella, let me spray you with some Off.”

Bella extended her little arms, like chicken wings for gators.

Dad One sprayed and told me about a gator that had jumped up from the water and snagged a pet from the bow of his friend’s boat. “His dog was just riding there, and then he was gone, just gone. And it was a big one, a pit bull!”

If I meet a dog, I sit with it for hours, giving it belly rubs and making up for my own lack of a dog growing up. Fur bonds stronger than scales. If my cuddly pet jumped off a boat into waiting gator jaws, it would have been far more traumatic than letting my three-inch turtle go, watching it move faster than I’d ever seen into the pond by my house.

Even though it might have been caught and eaten by a larger predator, beast or human, at least for a while, it was free.

***

At least once in any given two week period, one of the headlines “trending” on your Facebook sidebar will originate in Florida.

For example, the recent “Florida Sinkhole: Large Hole that Swallowed Man in 2013 Reopens, Police Say.”

The year after I let the turtle go, a small sinkhole opened up behind my class’s portable, a trailer serving as a classroom in overcrowded schools. The sinkhole, in the all-purpose field in which we’d played capture the flag just a few weeks earlier, was your standard wake-up-one-morning-and-it’s-just-there. We could see it from our portable’s windows. We named it after our teacher, and threw things in it when it rained. And that was the fourth grade, and a sinkhole in a suburb, affectionately called Lake Bordeaux.

If the yearly “Insane things that have ALREADY happened in Florida!” Buzzfeed listicle is any indication, the rest of the country thinks we’re all dancing closely with death. But most of us live on the fringes of the wilds. I’ve never fallen into a sinkhole, nor did anyone in my fourth-grade class. I do have to drive ten minutes to go watch the sun set behind the edge of the Everglades, my back to rows of homes that all look quite the same. Sometimes the sharks are out, and sometimes it’s lobster season. Sometimes it’s a log, and sometimes a gator.

I won’t bait a gator, but I’ll sit on the edge of my car and watch one, a stark modern dinosaur, fighting to survive less than a mile away from the proliferating housing developments, the man-made lakes where once there was a river of grass. There are predators with much more power.

So don’t fear my home state. The headlines may spell out Apocalypse with Some Theme Parks, but our orange juice will spoil you for life. I’d recommend you go out and pick any low hanging fruit, and just cut it open to squeeze it fresh. It’ll ruin you.

But if you seek what isn’t yours, even a paltry orange, be careful. The orange groves in Central Florida are ferociously guarded. There’s an old photo of me, taken just before I spent another afternoon canoeing past gator-like logs or log-like gators. Mugging, arms out, I’m pointing to a sign hanging on the padlocked gate to the orange groves. The sign read, “Guard Llamas: Inquire for Sales.”

When I come back home, to the fringes between the gators and the sharks, I think I’ll get a llama. Maybe this one won’t disappear.

 

A junior in Jonathan Edwards College, Elizabeth Miles still dresses for what she hopes the weather will be like instead of what it actually is. Send her an email at elizabeth.a.miles@yale.edu.

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