(A happy ending, that is)
Ever since I moved Howard into a larger tank out on the back porch, I've been considering letting him go this summer instead of next. I had wanted to keep him another year, to get him to a size that would make him nearly invulnerable to raccoons, skunks and other minor predators.
However, two factors outweighed that: One was that I was concerned he was becoming (for a snapper) too socialized and would approach humans expecting food. The other was that he spent much of his time in the translucent plastic tank scrabbling at the edge trying to get out.
Okay, a third factor -- snappers are not clean animals and the larger he got, the more it became apparent that we were going to have to go to twice-weekly tank cleanings. All in all, the notion of a winter indoors with Howard was beginning to look like the point at which you go from having this odd little pet to having a strange, obsessive thing going on. Hockey-puck sized Howard was cute, but he was growing fairly fast and, by next spring, would be kind of a weird thing to have in the house.
In any case, I don't give animals at this level a lot of credit for the kinds of emotions you would see in dogs, elephants, etc., but whether he is capable of being "happy," Howard was very much ready to start rambling. This is one of the major issues with exotic pets -- they're all pleasant as infants, but when they reach adolescence, they don't want to be fussed with. They need to be out on their own.
So the decision was made, and I started scouting places where he wouldn't run into people, and where he would be less likely to go wandering across roads.
This swamp is about 9 miles from the house, and set back about 100 yards from a road. The grass you see here is waist-high, growing on foot-tall tussocks with black mud between them. A very slow creek runs through it, so I got on the far side from the road, which doesn't have a lot of traffic to begin with. (There was a small bridge going over the creek, part of an ATV trail.)
If Howard decides to go out on the road, it will take some effort. As for him being disturbed, it is very unlikely that anybody is going to go through this stuff. I put on my gumboots and carried him out there in a plastic food storage box. Tough going -- where I couldn't go tussock-to-tussock, my boots were really sucking down into the mud. Nobody's going to idly wander out there, and, if they do, they'll be too busy avoiding falling into the muck to bother looking for turtles.
This is the edge of the aforementioned slow-moving creek. I set him down on the mud, and you can see the results in the video above. He sat quite still for about a minute and a half, then looked around, gave me one more glance and began trucking off on his own -- away from the creek, as it happened, though it will still be there if he changes his mind.
Here he is heading into the grass. I assume he'll burrow into the muck, once he finds a spot he likes. I would expect him to spend most of the next few years just growing. I don't think snappers worry about mating until they're several years old, and they're not at all sociable otherwise. I gave him as much food as he wanted over the past couple of days, so he'll be fine while he figures out the wild-food thing. I'm pretty confident that he'll work it out -- he really never gave any indication of being other than a moving collection of prehistoric instincts.
Which is not to say I won't miss the little fellow. It's been very interesting having him around, in large part because he was all instinct and very little emotions -- a fascinating guy. As for affection on my part, well, you don't cuddle these guys, but here's a loving dad -- just under that last bit of khaki, you can just make out the edge of my gumboots. One more half-inch of muck and I'd have had wet feet. As it was, after Howard had left, it took me a few minutes to rock my feet back and forth and yank my feet -- with boots still attached -- out of the mud.
Howard had left four of the goldfish behind, so I'm going to fill his tank with water and let them hang out for awhile. I figure it was his equivalent of a pardon as he left. (Though in a week or so, he may be kicking himself -- "Man, I should have eaten those stupid fish!")