Monster quest: finding the giant snapping turtle of Prospect Park--before NY legalizes trapping them

Snapping turtle in the Phragmites of Prospect Park Lake.

Snapping turtle in the Phragmites of Prospect Park Lake.

For months I have been chasing the biggest animal in Prospect Park, an enormous snapping turtle, hoping to get a picture, or at least a glimpse. The turtle–along with a similar one in nearby Green-Wood Cemetery–would be a fantastic urban legend–were it not for the photographic proof that they really exist.

Plenty of people say they saw a huge turtle–and almost universally describe her as “big as a garbage can lid.”  The captain of the lake boat says it lives near the Terrace Bridge that crosses the Lullwater. Fishermen report seeing it just the other side of that bride. Last year a huge nesting snapping turtle got caught in the fence by the boathouse and a park worker who handles lots of wildlife says he thinks it lives in the center of the lake.

Meanwhile, in Green-Wood, it’s the Crescent Water, a smallish pond near the southern end of the graveyard, that holds a huge turtle, according to Rob Jett, an incredibly skilled birder who leads tours of the cemetery.


giant turtle on grass by pond

Snapping turtle in Green-Wood, by Jeremy Seto

The giant turtle in Prospect Park may be “Godzilla,” a favorite turtle that was moved from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden when they drained their Japanese Garden pond. People who didn’t want to drain the pond cited the giant turtle as a reason not to. Then–just like in the News Radio episode where everyone loved the office’s one nice, friendly rat named Mike–until they figured out that there were a dozen or so of him–the garden drained the pond and discovered a whole group of Godzillas.
So there may be one each in Prospect Park and Green-Wood or there may be a whole bunch. This is the best time of year to see them–when females come out of the water to lay eggs. I’ve seen a baby snapping turtle, an economy or mid-sized one, but never one that I would compare to a garbage can lid. Mind you, almost all of the turtles you see in New York City are just red-eared sliders–abandoned pets–not powerful snapping turtles.

I  do wonder if the wonder if these turtles are why I never see any baby ducks or geese in the park–only swans. People have seen them eat adult ducks and some speculate people try to feed them chicken. I’ve set up a ridiculous underwater video camera on a stick contraption in case I see one underwater. When I mention it to people they’re usually shocked. There’s something kind of crazy and delightful about a 50 pound reptile (I’m just guessing here) lurking in the bottom of a bunch of Brooklyn ponds.

New York state is, oddly, considering a bill that would allow trapping snapping turtles. We already let people hunt them with bows and guns, but this bill would allow trapping “spearing, catching with the hands, or by use of a club or hook.” Now that is one thing I don’t want to see in Prospect Park. I don’t much care for the plan that rounds up and gasses Canada geese every year throughout the city, but at least you would think it’s easier to let the turtles do it for free. Wildlife advocates are urging people to write to their assembly members to stop the new law, which they fear will lead to deaths of many other endangered turtles.


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