Are Snapping Turtles Dangerous?



So you just found a Snapping Turtle by your home and want to know if it will be a problem for you, your kids, and your pets. You are not alone! Every spring and summer I receive several inquiries from people in my area asking if I can relocate a Snapping Turtle out of a swimming pond, usually from parents concerned about their children. So, are Snapping Turtles dangerous? And what should you do if you find a Snapping Turtle in your pond? Thankfully, in the water, both Common and Alligator Snapping Turtles are very docile and will go to great lengths to avoid humans. Common Snapping Turtles are also very abundant and in many areas occupy the vast majority of waterbodies, including small swimming ponds, so if they were swimming around biting people with any sort of regularity, we’d all know about it. While technically possible, a bite from a Snapping Turtle in the water is so incredibly rare that it’s not something we should be worried about; just leave the turtle alone and it will mind its own business. On land, especially when females are nesting, they will defend themselves when someone or something tries to bother them and are capable of delivering very powerful bites, but again, leaving them alone is the best course of action. So, long story short, Snapping Turtles are only dangerous to people when people are messing with the turtles!

In the water, Snapping Turtles are incredibly docile and will go to great lengths to avoid people. If you've gone swimming in the same spot for years and only recently saw a snapper for the first time, oddds are it was there from the start and simply avoided notice until you were lucky enough to spot it.

Snapping Turtles are slow on land and cannot outrun predators or dive into the water to hide, and unlike most other turtles, their bodies are too large to fit fully within their protective shell, so instead they rely on their large size and scary demeanor to hold their ground and defend their position when approached. But, even on land, they will not attack or chase after you – just give them space and they’ll move on. Usually, the Snapping Turtles found away from water are females looking for a place to nest in the late spring and early summer, so even if you find one on your front lawn, the odds are she’ll be back in the water the very next day, not to venture far from water again until the following year. That being said, if you have permanent water by your home, it’s best to make sure your kids know not to mess with big turtles they might find and keep an eye on your dogs when they’re outside in unfenced yards from mid-May through early July when the turtles are nesting. 

When confronted on land, Snapping Turtles will hold their ground, open their mouths, and may attempt to bite any person or animal that attacks or tries to handle them. Most land encounters with snappers occur during the nesting season, so if your dogs have have access to open land it is best to supervise them while outside from mid-May through early July and children should be advised to give large turtles at least a few feet of space. The turtles will not attack or chase you, but will defend themselves when threatened.

I have lost count of how many times I’ve captured large Snapping Turtles in popular swimming areas as part of a biological survey, only to hear people nearby proclaim that they’ll never swim at that beach again. It’s understandable why people are concerned about Snapping Turtles; most of us only ever see Snapping Turtles when they are on land, and if you’ve ever tried to help one across the road or seen someone handle one, you’ll know that they do not appreciate our attempts to help them and will turn to face people who approach, hiss, and bite. And, due to their incredibly large size, dinosaur-like appearance, and defensive demeanor, it’s rational to be concerned about having one in your swimming pond. However, if you’ve ever seen one in the water you’ll also know that they are entirely different animals when submerged. If approached, they just swim in the opposite direction and hide.  Due to how common and widespread they are, most of us have probably been swimming with large Common Snapping Turtles, but they are so secretive in the water that we usually don’t even know they are there. If you want to avoid swimming with Snapping Turtles, you’re best off just sticking to swimming pools, but there really isn’t any point to that since the turtles will put great effort into staying out of your way while you’re swimming. 

When I captured this large Common Snapping Turtle during a survey on private land, the landowner proclaimed that they would never swim in that pond again, but this turtle had likely been in the pond for decades without ever bothering people, which is almost always the case with Snapping Turtles.

In truth, it is not very common for adult Snapping Turtles to move to a new location. Turtles are creatures of habit and once they reach adulthood tend to stick to the same habitat for the rest of their lives unless that habitat is disturbed. In most cases, when someone finds a Snapping Turtle in or by a pond they swim in, it’s not a new arrival and was likely there for years avoiding notice and not causing any worry to people until someone finally spotted it. Really, it’s not the turtle that’s the problem, it’s just our perception of the turtle that is worrying.

So, in the water the turtles will avoid you, and on land all you need to do is give Snapping Turtles some space to avoid conflict, but what if you find a Snapping Turtle crossing the road and want to help it? Please do, but keep safety in mind and do not risk getting hit by a car in your efforts to save a turtle. If you can do so safely, small Snapping Turtles and other species can usually just be picked up and brought to whatever side of the road they were headed, but please do not move them to a new location (visit this post about turtles on roads for more info). Keep in mind that all turtles can bite, not just snappers, so keep your hands toward the back of the shell. In the case of Snapping Turtles, picking them up can be a challenge, especially when the turtle is large. Keep their head pointed away from you and remember that their long necks can reach a little bit over the top of their shell, so keep your hands on the turtle’s back end and be mindful of their hind feet, which may try to scratch and push your hands away. If they are too large to pick up, you can grasp the back of the shell and carefully drag them off the road in the direction they were headed. This video is an excellent resource for learning how to move large Snapping Turtles across roads:  

Long story short, Snapping Turtles are great animals to have around and function as a sort of cleanup crew in lakes and ponds. Just give them a little space when you see them and you won’t have any cause for concern, even when swimming in close quarters with one.