GROTON — Next time someone tells you about the 100-pound snapping turtle they just saw crossing the road, take it with a grain of salt, said Richard Roth. Local snapping turtles get up to only about 35 pounds.
“I’ve had people tell me they’ve seen one 100 pounds,” he said. “No you didn’t. People tend to exaggerate the size when they see a snapping turtle.”
Roth, owner of Creature Teachers in Littleton, was the guest speaker at the Nashua River Watershed Association’s Saturday, dispelling myths and educating the public about wild animals found locally at the event “Wildlife in Your Backyard.”
And Roth wasn’t the only special guest. With him, Roth brought a menagerie of backyard critters: rodents and reptiles, prey and predators alike.
The main room of the NRWA was packed full of children and parents, all vying for a view of every animal Roth produced form its carrier, each larger and more surprising than the last.
All the animals, with the exception of two, were born and raised in captivity, said Roth, and for very good reason — the natural chain of command.
“Every animal out there has a job to do. If we take it out of its home, it can’t do its job. If it can’t do its job, then maybe another animal can’t do its job,” said Roth.
The other reason for using domesticated wildlife, he said, is the wild-born animals, unused to the surroundings, would be terrified of the focused attention of a crowd.
Starting small, Roth pulled out Fiona, a flying squirrel. Roth had purchased Fiona from a breeder in Texas.
“I asked him if they would just chuck them in the air and send them to Massachusetts; they said no, you have to buy them a plane ticket,” joked Roth, to the boisterous laughter of the children.
In fact, said Roth, despite their name, the squirrels can’t fly at all.
“They should be called gliding squirrels,” said Roth, exhibiting Fiona’s “wings,” a flap of skin that runs from her back feet to her front feet.
Roth brought out Violet, the woodchuck. Unlike her name suggests, said Roth, the word “woodchuck” has nothing to do with chucking wood, as one child questioned. The word comes from the Algonquan term for the animal. Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, are playful when domesticated. But, he warned against trying to capture one in the wild.
“They’ve got quite a set of choppers, so if I saw one in the garden I wouldn’t go up and try to move it,” he said.
Next came out the snakes: a corn snake and a milk snake.
“They’re also called the farmer’s friend,” said Roth; the snakes are used for pest control around the crops and the cows, gobbling up mice that cross their paths in the field or the barn. The milk snake is one of the two animals Roth found in the wild, crossing his driveway.
The snapping turtle is Roth’s second rescued wild creature.
“This turtle has gone through a whole lot of people trying to kill it,” said Roth.
The reason is because of her propensity for crossing the road, which snapping turtles do in order to lay their eggs. The best way to redirect a snapping turtle in the road is to rotate it by the back of its shell and give it a little scoot. To grab it by the tail could injure its spine and to go in front off its powerful jaws could result in personal injury.
Pepper, a 6-year-old gray fox, was the next guest. Unlike red foxes, gray foxes are native to the area. Red foxes have been around for hundreds of years, having were originally introduced by the British as a game animal. Still, red foxes are more commonly seen than their gray cousins, which are capable of climbing trees.
But, said Roth, up in the foliage they’d have the chance of running into the next species he brought out: porcupines.
Still, he said, cuddling the quilled Wheezy, “As much as they love being up in trees, they’re very slow moving, very clumsy animals. It’s fairly common to see porcupines fall right out of a tree.”
Porcupines possess over 30,000 quills, and although they’re not capable of throwing them, they are barbed at the end and will lodge in flesh.
Because of their quills, porcupines only have one natural enemy: fishers, who are fast enough to attack porcupines in the face, one of their two vulnerable areas, including the stomach.
Years ago, fishers were hunted for their pelts. The trapping is a prime example of the effect on nature of removing one species from its habitat. At the time, porcupines, which eat vegetation, began decimating the forest.
After putting away Wheezy, out came the fisher, a baby. “Right now she’s like a big ferret. We’re hoping she stays this way,” said Roth.
In the wild, though, the animals, which are related to weasels, can be aggressive and are opportunistic hunters. In fact, Creature Teachers is the only organization in Massachusetts licensed to have a fisher cat for educational purposes.