The Author’s Bite



Although it is extremely difficult to get bitten by an alligator snapping turtle or Common Snapping Turtle, I managed to pull it off. At the peak of a multi-year drought, I noodled by hand—searching ostensibly, and successfully, for sirens—in the soupy muck of large, heretofore never dry (but now newly, but still juicy, dry) sphagnum swamp located on Fort Stewart. Wrist-deep in muck, I was bitten by a small, subadult Common Snapping Turtle. The sound of the turtle biting my right ring finger produced an audible click. Jumping skyward, reflexively, in pain, I disengaged my finger, the last inch of which (deeply splayed on its underside) looked in danger of falling off. My t-shirt was a damp mess of blood and muck, my face twisted in pain. I drove immediately to the army hospital.

An unnecessarily protracted entrance interview at the army hospital included several dozen question. Note: my answers below, but not the questions, are slightly embellished.

Nice Nurse: “You were bitten by what type of turtle?”

Victim-Patient: “A subadult Chelydra serpentina, a Common Snapper. For our purposes then, an aptly-named species.”

Nice Nurse: “Can you describe the health of the turtle?”

Victim-Patient: “Hmm, apparently robust. And no longer hungry.”

Nice Nurse: “Has turtle recently been treated by a veterinarian? Has the turtle had a rabies shot in the last year?”

Victim-Patient: “No, these questions are not applicable here as this was a wild, not captive, turtle. And I don’t think turtles get rabies.”

Nice Nurse: “What is your pain on scale of one to 10? Ten being the worst.”

Victim-Patient: “A 9.6. I feel an instant pound-throbbing whenever I withdraw my finger from this jumbo sweet tea mug.” What was left of the digit was submerged in a bath of bloody ice-water.

Nice Nurse: “Can you describe the condition of the turtle’s environment?”

Victim-Patient: “A glorious and good condition seepage-fed swamp. A verdant, pretty place, home for substantial biodiversity. Frogs, barred owls, otters and mudsnakes have the run of the joint, but no rain for five years has allowed the recent invasion of land-lubbing, gill-less primates. Fact is, we don’t belong there.”

On to the emergency room. Greer Noonburg, the physician who treated me (and a ringer for Jon Stewart), had recently developed a profound interest in aquatic injuries and animal bites that occur in or near water and was conducting research to examine the bacterial constituents that invade and thrive in such wounds. Dr. Noonburg greeted me with substantial enthusiasm, a big smile. One might say he seemed thrilled to see me, or at least excited about the prospects of studying my turtle bite.

Thanks to his help, my injury healed and I recovered sans any troubling infection. I still use the finger to measure turtles. And a tight, in-focus black-and-white photograph of my finger, splayed open to show the full extent of tissue damage, can be found in Management of Extremity Trauma and Related Infections Occurring in the Aquatic Environment, an article that Dr. Noonburg published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons in 2005.