Nobody moves to New York City for the wildlife, though pigeon lovers will never bore, and you can witness rats of previously inconceivable sizes and athletic ability. Even the parks, despite all the binocular-clad olds, seem better suited for people- than bird-watching, and it’s likely that you will live here for years without ever stumbling on any fauna livelier than a chipmunk. But my otherwise glum habit of staring at the ground while walking does pay occasional dividends: avoiding piles of poo and spotting baby turtles when they slowly cross my path in the middle of a park, as one recently did. Dog shit can be scraped off a shoe sole, but my soul would’ve been scarred if I’d unwittingly lumbered onto this little dude:
The turtle, known briefly as Henry, was crawling through a meadow section of the park studded with baseball diamonds, somewhat far—a decent stroll for a human, and a half-marathon for this guy—from any bodies of water where the park’s turtles tend to reside.
What do you do when you come across something like this in the (relative) wild? Enjoy the hell out of it. My friends crouched near the turtle and watched it inch through the grass for a few minutes, letting it crawl over our hands. Without warning a gaggle of little kids accosted us. (Parenting note: be sure to remind your children that if they see a group of strange adults inexplicably squatting in the middle of the field and whispering over something unseen, the right move is not to eagerly bound over there and see what’s cookin’.) Fortunately for them, their decision proved not just harmless but actively interesting, and the kids were enthralled by the tiny turtle. This was fun for all ages until they began to pick the turtle up and—accidentally, I hope—drop him from increasingly worrisome heights, which got the grownups thinking Maybe we’re not all responsible turtle appreciators here, maybe these younguns are a little too reckless to hang out with a turtle without torture resulting. Though I had no window into the turtle’s mental state, Henry seemed resolute in his retreat inside his shell. Taking that as a sure sign of terror, I warded the kids away and told them we were going to return the turtle to his home.
The question “Who gets to hang out with this animal?” I’d already presumptuously answered, but I was clueless as to the next one: Where was home? Henry was not as rare a find as I’d first assumed. The park harbors a big population of red-eared slider turtles, which are not native to the area but are by now plentiful, likely because people have been releasing their pets. (Don’t do this.) Most of those turtles while away their hours near the creeks and ponds. But what if the turtle had willfully escaped from that wet mess? What if he was escaping a rough home life back at turtle home? Who am I to decide his path? I was concerned for his safety in a meadow full of heavy stomping human feet running for Frisbees, dog paws and maws. But maybe he had embarked on a exhilarating quest to the Dry Place, and by carrying him in a plastic cup back to the nearby pond I reversed all the progress he made.
I did it anyway, and only later did a NYC park ranger assuage my mild guilt. When it comes to urban parks and human-maintained park land, the general policy is to get vulnerable animals out of the way of potential harm from dumb humans, but leave them close to where you found them. (Or in the case of an animal trickier than a baby red-eared slider, suppress your hero complex and get a park official to do so.) So putting Henry back near the pond was good park stewardship. This news came as a relief because I had internalized the refrain “Leave no trace,” which, the ranger clarified, applies more to preserved wilderness than a NYC park. With Henry, leaving no trace would’ve required me to walk away, put strong blinders on my imagination, and stop envisioning the multifarious ways an inch-long turtle could meet its end in a park rife with large-ass oblivious mammals.
(The ranger also explained that red-eared sliders are invasive and aggressive towards the native turtle species—again, don’t release your pets—but, yeah, regardless of a creature’s damaging ecological role, parkgoers should still seek to spare them undue harm.)