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Snapping turtles bite viciously in self defense and when striking at food – in fact, the species’ name, “serpentina”, refers to the long neck and lightening-fast strike.
A Word of Caution
I have worked with a number of quite calm captives that showed no propensity for biting, but all are capable, and feeding accidents are always a possibility. Never put your hands in the vicinity of a snapper’s head, even for a moment - believe me, you will not be able to avoid the strike! The injuries resulting from a bite can be severe or even disabling. This is a species to observe, not handle.
Nesting female snapping turtles are sometimes encountered on roads. When helping in this situation, use the technique described below, and always move the animal in its intended direction of travel.
Small turtles can be lifted by grasping the rear of the carapace (upper shell). Larger animals will use their powerful rear legs to dislodge your hands if you attempt to do this. Be aware also that the long neck can reach almost to the very rear of the carapace (upper shell).
To lift a large snapper, approach it from the rear and slide your hand along the carapace until you reach the edge, just above the head. This looks dangerous, and the turtle’s head will be pressed against your fingers, but it will not be able to bite you. Support the rear of the turtle with your other hand. Do not lift snappers by their tails, as is often done – this will cause severe injuries to the spine and internal organs. The accompanying photo shows me grasping a large alligator snapping turtle in a safe manner. Prior to lifting the turtle (quite a chore as this old fellow weighs 206 pounds!) I will slide my hand over a bit so as to center it directly above the head.
I have used this method to move scores of large, aggressive turtles of many species – alligator snappers, Malaysian river turtles (Batagur baska), Nile soft-shelled turtles and others. Soft-shelled turtles do not offer much in the way of space at the edge of the carapace – practice with other species is required before tackling one of these ill-tempered fellows.