Mason County News
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Not So Towering Inferno
Outdoors Outpost
Wednesday, April 25, 2012 • Posted April 25, 2012

For the benefit of those who have led such a deprived childhood they never shot turtles, let me just state here that this is a time-honored tradition in Texas and some other enlightened states. It’s also pretty necessary if you want fish to survive in your tanks (what Yankees call ponds).

A tank, otherwise known as a stock tank, is a small body of water on a ranch that cattle and other livestock drink from. Back during the 1950s there was some kind of government program that helped pay ranchers to build stock tanks, which involves using a bulldozer to create an earthen reservoir at a spring or seep. So there are tanks all over the place in Texas, and they’re great places to fish, swim, get bitten by water moccasins, and shoot turtles.

A lot of folks have stocked their tanks with fish of one kind or another, but one of the big problems with such an endeavor is turtles. Somehow, and don’t ask me how they do it, but somehow, turtles catch fish and eat them. You’d think the fish could get away, but when you have too many turtles in a tank, they’ll decimate your fish population. And when you have to pay for the fish, turtles in your tank are pretty much persona non grata.

The remedy is to sit on the tank dam with a .22 rifle and shoot the turtles, which are not equipped with gills, and therefore have to surface once in a while to breathe. Turtle shooting is not only necessary, but a lot of fun for teenagers who live in places where shooting is considered a valuable skill, and not a degenerate activity. In other words, places where people aren’t stupid.

When I was a kid, my friends and I spent countless hours at tanks, and burned up probably millions of rounds of .22 ammunition, keeping the turtle population from getting out of hand. Don’t bother giving us plaques, or anything. We were just doing our jobs. Besides, shooting turtles is a lot of fun, and teaches kids to aim carefully, because all a turtle sticks out of the water is his head, which makes a pretty small target. And when there are several teenagers with rifles around, the turtles figure out pretty quick to stick as little of their heads above water as necessary to grab a quick breath, and to pull them back under, chop chop. The teenagers, of course, learn to watch for turtleheads and shoot quick, so it’s a win-win. Well, except for the turtles who get shot. But you can’t please everyone.

Anyway, my friend, Doug Howlett recently posted a story on Facebook that made me think of shooting turtles. Doug used to be an editor at Outdoor Life magazine, and now he does freelance outdoor writing. The story was about a brushfire in Suffolk, Virginia, which was started by a turtle.

Well, technically, the turtle didn’t actually start the fire. Officials believe some teenagers set a dead turtle on fire, which got out of hand. But when Doug posted the story, he commented that he didn’t know turtle shells were flammable. And since I hadn’t yet read the story, my first thought was that someone was shooting turtles, and the turtle shell caught fire from a bullet. Which was not right at all, probably, but there you go.

What caught my attention was the comments people had made about the incident. One person wrote, “I cannot even print what is going through my head about this story. How cruel, heartless and irresponsible to the surrounding area! Sociopaths in the making right there. I certainly hope charges do come of this. I am incensed.”

Well. That seems harsh to me. Not that I ever set a dead turtle on fire myself when I was a kid, since it never occurred to me, but I can’t see anything particularly wrong with it. Besides, it’s not like the turtle wouldn’t have done the same to the teenagers. If he had opposable thumbs. And matches.

Someone else wrote, “Torturing animals is one of the three common characteristics possessed by serial killers so I’d say that calling them sociopaths is apt.” Now, I’ve never been tortured, but my impression is that you have to be alive to do that. If you’re not alive, I don’t think they call it torture. In this case, I think I’d call it burning a dead turtle, and as far as I know that’s not against the law anywhere.Another person wrote, “Even dead, who would set an animal on fire?” Which kind of makes me wonder what people think goes on at crematoriums. Not that I would ever want to work at a crematorium. Or even visit one. That would be icky.But we can all learn a lesson from this story, namely not to ever set a dead turtle on fire without first hosing down the surrounding area. And you should also be sure to keep all matches out of the reach of teenagers. And turtles . . .

Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who thinks Burning Turtles would make a good name for a rock band. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or

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