Amanda Stronza, anthropologist, professor, conservationist, and wildlife photographer, on a snapping turtle.
GB Tell me why you chose the snapping turtle?
AS Aesthetically, I think they’re really beautiful, they’re this muted green and mud brown and moss, which reflect the colours of the Earth itself. Turtles are so of the earth to me, but snapping turtles are aquatic creatures so they really move so seamlessly in and out of water and earth and then also I love the shape of a snapping turtle. It’s a little bit toy-like, a little bit dinosaur-like, kind of prehistoric especially the common snapping turtles that have long tails. It’s as though they’re from another era but you can be with one right here and now like being with a living dinosaur.
GB I think that the DNA is loads older than humans. I always wonder if they’ve evolved much but probably not because they’re in the same sort of habitat that they’ve always been in.
AS They’re one of the oldest creatures on earth. Maybe that’s part of the reason that they appear among so many indigenous groups. I think it’s partly because of this connection again, between Earth and water. A lot of the reason that I have such an affinity for snapping turtles is because I made this personal connection. We had 18 months during the pandemic where I had a very intimate bond day in day out, every moment of every day, connecting with a snapping turtle called HOPE!. He taught me so much of his life and the life of all snapping turtles.
GB So you find them all more beautiful, since you met HOPE!
AS I find them all more beautiful, because HOPE!, taught me to see them in a way that I hadn’t seen snapping turtles before. I think we tend to think of reptiles as cold, and not necessarily having much personality or being very expressive. And HOPE! taught me that he has a whole repertoire of movements with his body, that show his mood, that convey how he’s thinking, that he has his own particularities, things that he likes and dislikes. He taught me to see that not all snapping turtles are the same. They’re very expressive. I think, if I could summarise why I think they’re so beautiful in one word, it would be ‘contrast’. There are all these interesting contradictions. I think of snapping turtles as incredibly vulnerable. When I found HOPE! he was the size of a silver dollar. When they’re hatchlings, nothing’s more vulnerable. Big fish, birds, raccoons, and other turtles can prey on them. But they’re also vulnerable and soft, in a way, even when they’re fully grown, because snapping turtles can never retract fully into their shells. Their limbs and their head are always out. So, they’re really vulnerable at the same time as they have this big protective shell and they have these claws that make them very dinosaur-like. I know from holding HOPE! that their feet are so soft. I used to put my finger under his foot and massage it and he would fall into a kind of a reverie just responding to the comfort. I think the combination of the hard and the soft makes him very beautiful.
And we think, famously, of tortoises and turtles as slow. Well, snapping turtles can be very slow and they can slow their metabolism so much that they can be under mud for hours and hours and then in the winter they can live under the ice for months because of their metabolism – but snapping turtles are fast, too. I mean, they can move. They can cover distances astonishingly quickly even in tall grass, and then they swim exceptionally well. So there’s the idea that they’re slow but actually they’re super-fast and there’s the idea that they’re hard but they’re so soft, and we think of reptiles as being cold blooded and not expressive, but snapping turtles see exceptionally well. I would look into his eyes and I would see a whole world, a reptile who’s actually all-seeing and intelligent.
GB Well they’ve been here since before the dinosaurs so maybe they’ve inherited wisdom throughout the years.
AS Wise is a good word for it, definitely. I don’t hesitate to use the word love. I think in some way, a turtle can love, I think he loved me back. He could express himself in a way that I never expected a reptile could express emotion.
GB That’s amazing. You’d expect that with a kitten, but you would never expect that with a turtle.
AS I’ve learned that people who love snapping turtles like I do sometimes call them pond puppies. They can build a kind of attachment and connection with people. One of the ways I saw that HOPE! attached to me was the first time I put him in a big pool. I was the nervous mom letting him swim into the depths. He came back up, and there were a couple of herpetologists with me, and they were definitely laughing about the whole attachment. They study turtles, and they are careful not to anthropomorphize. But HOPE! came swimming to the side where I was. Even when HOPE! was held by someone else, he would turn his gaze towards me.
GB Do you think that animals appreciate beauty?
AS It’s so hard to know what animals think and feel but I believe they do experience beauty. I believe they do appreciate beauty and feel love and all these abstract things that are important to us as humans. I don’t like to anthropomorphize because I don’t want to take away from what an animal like a snapping turtle can experience in his own right. I don’t expect that HOPE! experiences the world the way I do, but I do truly believe that he experiences the world in a whole proliferation of beautiful ways that I can’t even imagine – and they can’t be measured.
GB How do you deal with the harsh side of nature? When animals kill each other?
AS I don’t have any solace to be honest. I just cry about it every day.
GB You create these wonderful pictures of dead animals that you find, making beautiful resting places for them with flowers and grass and stones. These have really struck a chord with people.
AS It’s been so interesting to me how it has hit people. I wonder if it’s twofold that we are hungry to talk about death in a way; it’s omnipresent, but we don’t talk about it – so death in general as well as our own. But I think we’re also hungry to talk about the suffering of other animals. We’ve been conditioned to look away from the death of other animals, to objectify them and cut off our feelings. But the feelings are still there and so I think that’s what I hit a little bit. It’s about not looking away from death. Not looking away from the death of other animals and acknowledging their lives and the beauty of death and that death sustains other beings. I pull the animals off the road, to honour them in their own right, and to try to restore some dignity to their lives. Also, I’m always thinking about the carrion feeders, quite often, there are vultures nearby watching me.
GB What makes something worthy of the word beauty to you?
AS I almost always think with my heart. My heart just guides me completely with everything in my life and so right away I just went to the fact that if something is beautiful, I feel it in my heart. We talk about beauty as something we see but it’s something I feel and that’s why when you asked me what’s beautiful, I could only think of other living beings. It’s not that I can’t see beauty in a lake or a mountain or a piece of art. I think what evokes the strongest emotion and feeling in my heart? It is another animal. Then I went right to a snapping turtle because I love so many animals, but I think maybe the most surprising love I had for animals was with HOPE!