The very dark twist of a college student’s turtle project

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Clemson University student Nathan Weaver holds a fake turtle he is using in his research to try and save the animals in Clemson, S.C. Weaver is placing the fake turtle in roads near campus and seeing how many drivers intentionally run over it. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson University student Nathan Weaver set out to determine how to help turtles cross the road. He ended up getting a glimpse into the dark souls of some humans.

Weaver put a realistic rubber turtle in the middle of a lane on a busy road near campus. Then he got out-of-the-way and watched over the next hour as seven drivers swerved and deliberately ran over the animal. Several more apparently tried to hit it but missed.

“I’ve heard of people and from friends who knew people that ran over turtles. But to see it out here like this was a bit shocking,” said Weaver, a 22-year-old senior in Clemson’s School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences.

To seasoned researchers, the practice wasn’t surprising.

The number of box turtles is in slow decline, and one big reason is that many wind up as roadkill while crossing the asphalt, a slow-and-steady trip that can take several minutes.

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The shattered plastic shell of a fake turtle sits near the turtle’s rubber body on a road near Clemson, S.C. Clemson University student Nathan Weaver is placing fake turtles in roads near campus to see how many drivers intentionally run over the animals. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

Sometimes humans feel a need to prove they are the dominant species on this planet by taking a two-ton metal vehicle and squashing a defenseless creature under the tires, said Hal Herzog, a Western Carolina University psychology professor.

“They aren’t thinking, really. It is not something people think about. It just seems fun at the time,” Herzog said. “It is the dark side of human nature.”

Herzog asked a class of about 110 students getting ready to take a final whether they had intentionally run over a turtle, or been in a car with someone who did. Thirty-four students raised their hands, about two-thirds of them male, said Herzog, author of a book about humans’ relationships with animals, called “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat.”

Weaver, who became interested in animals and conservation through the Boy Scouts and TV’s “Crocodile HunterSteve Irwin, wants to figure out the best way to get turtles safely across the road and keep the population from dwindling further.

Among the possible solutions: turtle underpasses or an education campaign aimed-at teenagers on why drivers shouldn’t mow turtles down.

The first time Weaver went out to collect data on turtles, he chose a spot down the road from a big apartment complex that caters to students. He counted 267 vehicles that passed by, seven of them intentionally hitting his rubber reptile.

He went back out about a week later, choosing a road in a more residential area. He followed the same procedure, putting the fake turtle in the middle of the lane, facing the far side of the road, as if it was early in its journey across. The second of the 50 cars to pass by that day swerved over the center line, its right tires pulverizing the plastic shell.

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Clemson University student Nathan Weaver, right, talks with his professor, Rob Baldwin, left, as they wait to see if a fake turtle he is using in his research is run over in a road near Clemson, S.C. Weaver is placing the fake turtle in roads near campus and seeing how many drivers intentionally run over it. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

“Wow! That didn’t take long,” Weaver said.

Other cars during the hour missed the turtle. But right after his observation period was up, before Weaver could retrieve the model, another car moved to the right to hit the animal as he stood less than 20 feet away.

“One hit in 50 cars is pretty significant when you consider it might take a turtle 10 minutes to cross the road,” Weaver said.

Running over turtles even has a place in Southern lore.

In South Carolina author Pat Conroy’s semi-autobiographical novel “The Great Santini,” a fighter-pilot father squashes turtles during a late-night drive when he thinks his wife and kids are asleep. His wife confronts him, saying: “It takes a mighty brave man to run over turtles.”

The father denies it at first, then claims he hits them because they are a road hazard. “It’s my only sport when I’m traveling,” he says. “My only hobby.”

That hobby has been costly to turtles.

It takes a turtle seven or eight years to become mature enough to reproduce, and in that time, it might make several trips across the road to get from one pond to another, looking for food or a place to lay eggs. A female turtle that lives 50 years might lay over 100 eggs, but just two or three are likely to survive to reproduce, said Weaver’s professor, Rob Baldwin.

Snakes also get run over deliberately. Baldwin wishes that weren’t the case, but he understands, considering the widespread fear and loathing of snakes. But why anyone would want to run over turtles is a mystery to the professor.

“They seem so helpless and cute,” he said. “I want to stop and help them. My kids want to stop and help them. My wife will stop and help turtles no matter how much traffic is on the road. I can’t understand the idea why you would swerve to hit something so helpless as a turtle.”

A very special thanks to Jeffrey Collins for contributing to this post.
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Comments

  1. Now what he needs to do is conditioning. Place an explosive in the rubber turtles. When a car drives over them, they explode and cause a flat tire. One word gets out, people will avoid turtles. Can I get a Federal grant for this research?

  2. I stopped on a rural road to help a turtle cross. It didn’t even cross my mind it was egg laying time. Female turtles bring large amounts of water (nice way of saying it) for mud making to build their nest. They don’t mind a bit spraying it out.

    End result turtle went back for more water, i went home for dry clothes.

    But what ya gonna do?

    Happy New Year

  3. Who runs over a turtle for the hell of it? I’m so harmless I catch and release spiders that I find in my house. I can’t imagine going out of my way to kill something.

    I have to admit, a big part of me really hopes that the horrible people driving get their turn to be the turtle soon.

  4. For some reason, I just don’t have the heart to flat out kill an animal for the hell of it. Now if it were a dog or some other animal that was going to attack me or my family…no problem..but to kill for the hell of it…I just don’t have what it takes.

  5. Those are the people to watch out for! they will snap! now, I am a freak, I would pull over and move the turtle. I also stop for what appears to be dead animals in the road. because they aren’t always dead.

  6. A few weeks ago I slowed down to avoid a young squirrel trying to make up its mind to cross the road or not. A guy who was tailgating me almost rear ended me.

    He had a cell phone in one hand but took his other hand off the wheel to give me the finger. I slowed down even more to annoy him. The squirrel made good decision and lived to cross the road another day.

    Which reminds me when someone tail gates me I turn on my lights. That #$%$ them off. I have helped turtles across the road when no traffic is in sight

  7. Black Ninja says:

    ……some people are just #$%$ holes.

  8. KC Williams says:

    Anyone who intentionally harms an animal deserves a special place in hell.

Any thoughts?