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Don Lewis, Massachusetts Audubon Society,
Fox Island Wildlife Management Area


Reprinted with permission from Dan McCullough.

Seeing the World
in the Eyes of a Turtle

Most of us love little animals.  We watch endless TV shows about them and take our children or grandchildren to petting zoos, where they can wrap their arm around the necks of woolly sheep or rub the soft fur of goats, llamas, or hold baby raccoons in their hands.

Most of our affection for our animal friends is, however, restricted to the soft, furry, warm-blooded types, like gerbils, guinea pigs, dogs, and cats.  There are more cats in the United States than there are humans; more money is spent on dog food in one year in the United States than is spent on food for homeless children.  We love our furry friends.

With some exceptions, most of us don’t, however, warm up to reptiles as much as we do to the mammals.  I couldn’t imagine snuggling up to, say, a turtle, or even thinking that one was “cute” or “pretty.”

But that was before I met Don Lewis.

I don’t know what his official title is; maybe he doesn’t even have one.  He’s just known from Orleans to Provincetown as “the turtle guy.”  I spent some time with him in the middle of June as he led a small group of a dozen or so interested human beings on a tour of the habitat of the diamondback terrapin.

These people had signed up for a Saturday morning three-hour mini-course on the life and habitat of the Cape Cod diamondback terrapin.  The course was sponsored by the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Before going out into the critter’s home territory, Lewis had assembled them in the conference room of the sanctuary’s headquarters in Wellfleet.  Smiling at each of the participants as they came into the meeting, and greeting them as if they were distant cousins he hadn’t seen in a while, he made each person in the group feel as if they were the reason the expedition was taking place.

Once people were settled in their seats, Lewis began his spiel about the animals they were about to study.  As he began to explain what the morning was going to entail, and began to talk a little about the animals themselves, not an eye left him, not a person diverted his attention from the speaker.

Don Lewis is nothing if not passionate about his work with the diamondbacks.  He waves his hands, and moves quickly back and forth in the front of the room, waving his arms and bobbing his head to emphasize a point, smiling all the time, as he darted around distributing handouts, already calling name-tagless people by name as he did so.

Part Monty Hall, part Carl Sagan, and part Indiana Jones, he inspires a palpably contagious enthusiasm for the study of turtles.  When he finished his talk and gave people directions to their destination, the small group began to move toward the door and headed for their cars with the spirit of football players exiting the huddle after some energizing words from their quarterback.

Wow, I thought to myself, it’s a good thing this guy is running an expedition to study turtles, and isn’t leading some kind of Nazi hate group; these people would follow him anywhere.

Fifteen minutes later, the group is assembled on a dirt road at the edge of one of the large salt marshes in the backwaters of Wellfleet Harbor.

If possible, Lewis is even more pumped up.  Watching him work, I just know he takes his coffee black, no sugar thank you.  As he talks to the group assembled at the back of his truck, he pulls out some equipment to show how the turtles are measured and counted.

Just at that moment, a woman lets out a yell.  Behind the group, a female turtle has come out of the marsh, right on cue, headed for the main road across Lieutenant’s Island, a dangerous place for a turtle.

People good-naturedly begin to tease Lewis about having a turtle show up just in time for the demonstration.  He laughs as he picks up the turtle.  He pokes his fingers up under her shell, and notes that she has eggs.  He passes her around and invites the group to do the egg inspection, too.  A little wary at first, the group is soon putting fingers right up under the shell, feeling the eggs, as “oohs” and “omigods” follow the turtle in her passage through the group.

Lewis speaks to the turtle in the manner one might speak to a dog, complimenting her on being a good mother.  He turns to the group: “Isn’t she a pretty girl?” he asks, holding the face of the turtle out for all to see.  The turtle looks over the group, not appearing the least bit uncomfortable.  Believe me, when Lewis holds a turtle in front of you and says she’s pretty, she begins to look pretty.

After a bit, the small band heads out to Turtle Point, a favorite spot for the diamondbacks to nest.  They bring the female with the eggs along with them.  Along the way, she begins to drop the eggs.  Unabashed, Lewis gathers them up as he walks along, putting them gently into a plastic bag.  Later, he puts them in a nesting area, digging the hole in the same manner the mother would, and gently placing the eggs in their new, safe nest.

This past Monday, he and I rode around in his red Jeep, tracing the back roads of Wellfleet, looking for turtles to identify and protect.  When he finds a turtle, he checks to see if it has been previously identified by a series of filed notches in the top shell, harmless and painless to the turtle.  If it’s a new turtle, he gives it a number with the notches and then with a hand-held GPS (global positioning system) unit, he sends a signal to a satellite that tells him, and eventually a computer, exactly where the turtle was found.

We snoop around for a while longer, and just as we’re getting back to where I parked my truck, his cell phone rings.  It’s Bob Prescott, director of the Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary.  A person on Lieutenant’s Island has spotted a nesting female diamondback in his driveway, laying eggs.

Lewis swerves the wheel up onto the blacktop road, and we’re on our way.  I think I can hear the music from Raiders of the Lost Ark playing in the background.

Two minutes later, we’re at the guy’s house, faster than the rescue squad could get there.  He’s standing at a place in the driveway his wife has marked with a bucket.

Lewis is down on his knees in a flash, continues his conversation with the family as he digs through the hard-pan clay too tough to dig with a shovel.  He gently prods out one, two, three eggs.  Then more, and then even more until he has a dozen of the pinkish eggs, each a little smaller than a walnut.  Five minutes later, we say goodbye to the homeowners and we’re back on the road, a dozen eggs in hand, ready to be planted in a safer place than a busy summer driveway.

In September, the tiny turtles, each about the size of a quarter, will peck a small hole in their shells, and continue feeding on their egg sac.  Then, a week later, they will dig their way up to the daylight, look around for a moment, head for the marsh, and a new generation of the threatened species begins.

For the ancient Chinese, there were four sacred creatures: the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the turtle.  American Indians believed the world was built on the back of a turtle.  Hindus believe that the god Vishnu came to Earth in the form of a turtle.

I always thought that these peoples saw things in the turtle that I did not see.  But that was before spending time up in Wellfleet with Don Lewis and his precious and beautiful diamondbacks.

Now I get it.

Dan McCullough is a Cape Cod Times columnist.  His column runs on Sundays.  Write him, care of the Cape Cod Times, 319 Main St., Hyannis, MA 02601.