Saturday, June 27, 2009

On Reeling in a Turtle

On one particularly hot and sticky work day last week, I experienced for the first time taking a group of ten campers to the pond to go fishing. I had never actually been on any fishing expeditions myself, as I don't come from a family that fishes. But I had been told that I'd only need to be present for safety reasons. And so, I ended up spending an hour of my day out by the pond in the midday blazing sunlight.

Of course, being a forever environmentally conscious camp, we always take the hooks out of the fish and let them swim free: no exceptions. Never mind that the fish are released into the man made pond for the sole purpose of being caught.

We fished from the deck that stretched over the deepest part of the pond. Campers would catch fish after fish, and one by one, sometimes with my help, they would pull the hooks from the fishes' mouths, and drop them back into the water, where some of the fish probably swam back up to look for more food and were re-caught. Sometimes a hook wouldn't come out. On those occasions, we would cut the line and set the fish free, sporting its strange new piercing. If thousands of years from now, someone does an archeological excavation of the site where the pond is today, they'll probably find hundreds of small fishing hooks, long after all of the fish that wore them are gone.

And so the routine went. I had learned it from others, and I would probably explain it to the next counselor who asked what leading fishing involved. And then, one camper, a small boy who brought his expensive fishing rod and tackle from home caught a turtle. And not a small, cute turtle either. It was about a foot in diameter, a geometrical pattern carved into its shell in a faint shade of orange on dark brown.

The boy called me over for help, and I saw it there, legs thrashing about in the gray and brown water, creating small waves. Its head stretched upward with the pull of the fishing line, and then retreated back into its shell, the fishing line following, straining, until the turtle's head was pulled back out, its neck stretched unnaturally.

It hit me, after a few moments of staring, that I was responsible for handling this, and that regardless of rumors that the turtles in this pond were in fact snapping turtles, I wanted this turtle to live. Quite strongly in fact.

"Stop trying to reel it in," I instructed, struggling to keep my voice calm.


I snatched the fishing rod from the hands of the boy, assuring the campers who had now gathered in an audience around me that the turtle would be all right. And then I pulled the turtle by the fishing line to the part of the pond where I could get closest to the water, reached my hand as close to the turtle as I could will myself to go, and cut the line. As the turtle disappeared into the water's darkness, campers asked me if it was dead.

"He's fine," I told them confidently, "the hook will just stay there, like it does in the fish."

The strangest part of walking away was just how close I felt to crying.

It occurred to me, as I told my campers that they should go back to fishing and stop worrying, that maybe when the fish flopped about, gasping for air, they suffered as much as the turtle did. That maybe we should worry.

Don't get me wrong. I eat meat. And the activism that feels the most meaningful to me is for human rights, not for the rights of fish. But I do wonder if our fascination with nature is inevitably nearly as dangerous as our tendency to ignore it. I wonder if I pulled the turtle too quickly into water from which I could release it, and by doing so caused further injury. . . I wonder if what I did may have actually killed it. I wonder if fishing teaches children that hurting something can be fun, as long as we can argue away all moral problems in our minds. As we tell ourselves that the hooks don't really hurt the fish, and that fish have no memory, so they cannot be traumatized by the experience of being deprived of water for minutes at a time.

Maybe we should stop fishing, hunting should be outlawed, and we should consider all animals injured in the name of fun victims of human cruelty. And for the sake of everything living, we need to put a stop to global warming.

Or maybe the opposite is true. Because every time a person steps on a patch of grass, tiny plants die. Nearly invisible insects are flattened, and their worlds go dark. And frankly, the last thing that the moss growing on the trunk of a tree needs, is a great big hug. It is a part of our existence that we alter nature, so perhaps we should instead embrace it, fish as much as we damn well please, and eat the fish too.

Either way, we have an impact, and just by waking up each morning we change the world around us, just as it changes us. I do believe that whichever way we choose to understand nature, we each must recognize that it exists in every aspect of our lives, and that in most cases, we cause the damage that we later try to correct.

And yes, I hope that that turtle is still swimming around in the pond tonight, thick leathery skin around the fishing hook healing and all pain long gone.


I've been reminded to let you know that my fabulous sister is partly responsible for coming up with the title of my blog.

Oh, and for folks who work at camp with me, I mean to tell a story here, not give a complete factual rendition of events :)


  1. Very interesting. It really makes you think. Every action that we make could have an impact in a seemingly unrelated way. Who knows, that turtle having a hook stuck in it could cause all the antelopes in Africa to go extinct sometime next year. Or not. :) Anyway, I might suggest a third option to go along with your two. It's actually a combination of your two. We could try to limit our impact on nature by outlawing hunting and fishing, while also understanding that just by existing, we change our environment. And we also need to fix global warming. :) That's just my opinion though.

  2. I agree :) I just wanted to make this post arrive at the idea of seeing, rather than at what opinion I personally hold.

  3. As I'm sure I've told you, my dad's a hardcore republican, so he doesn't believe that humans cause global warming and he believes in gun rights. I'm undecided about global warming, but I think it's foolish to believe that 8(?) billion humans on the earth don't cause some kind of impact on the earth. I would agree with the outlaw ing of hunting, but for some reason, I can't see the fishing thing. I suppose because of our culture that has deemed fishing a natural passtime, whereas hunting hasn't had that label yet. Or because you can't really do too much damage to someone with a fishing rod as opposed to a rifle. I think limiting one's impact on the earth is a necessary thing where it's reasonable. Limting car emissions and creating legislation that restricts pollution is the right path, but it can get out of control, like when you can't have cut flowers in your home because you're technically killing a plant. I think when I originally starting typing this, I had some kind of point, but I don't think I do. I'm kind of rambling now. So yeah...This is Jen, btw.

  4. A practical suggestion, short of a fishing ban in your pond: require barbless hooks like they use for catch-and-release on the Gunpowder. These can be removed from the turtle/fish with much less trauma to the animal (just hold the hook with a small pliers). Scott, who suggested this, also says it's easy to file the barb off of a regular hook. Happy fishing!