RIchards hoists an alligator snapping turtle weighing more than
100 pounds. Richards sells the big snappers to turtle hobbyists
The alligator snapping
turtle is a primitive-looking beast with a hooked beak, powerful
jaw and rows of jagged ridges atop its shell. But the most curious
feature of the alligator snapper is a worm-like lure in its mouth.
The turtle lies on river bottoms with its mouth open wide. When a
fish comes along to investigate the tempting lure the turtle’s
jaws snap shut.
The prey never
knows what hit it.
John Richards can
probably relate. Turtles, and alligator snappers in particular, have
a hold on him that he can’t
just a fascination I’ve had
since I was a little kid. Ever since I was 4 or 5 years old I
was dragging common snappers out of the creek,” says
John, who grew up near the Blue River in Kansas City.
When he wasn’t
collecting turtles, John was reading about them. “By
the time I was 10 years old I knew the Latin, or scientific name for
every turtle described on the planet. I was definitely obsessed,” he
Today, John does
not collect specimens from the wild, but he’s
still obsessed with turtles. The Southwest Electric Cooperative member
operates Loggerhead Acres Turtle Farm, raising alligator snappers and
other turtles in ponds and aquariums.
everything from Mexican giant musk turtles to Reeves turtles from
China and Japanese pond turtles and spotted turtles and side-necks
from New Guinea and Argentina. I could go on and on and on,” he
But more than anything
else, he raises alligator snappers, or loggerheads, as they’re
known in Louisiana.
alligator snapper with unusual coloring are highly desired
by turtle hobbyists. Alligator snappers are extremely long
lived — often reaching ages of 150 years or more — and
are illegal to capture or kill in Missouri. In fact, you can’t
even possess them without a permit. Instead, John buys breeding
stock from Louisiana, the only place in America where collection
is still legal, and gathers eggs those turtles bury around a fenced
pond on his property.
got over 600 breeders and hatch out in the neighborhood of 4,000
baby alligator snappers a year,” he says.
The alligator snapping
turtle, or Macroclemys temminckii, is unique to North America.
In fact, it exists naturally only in waters that drain into the Gulf
of Mexico. There are no known sub-species anywhere else in the
the largest freshwater turtle in the western hemisphere. They’ve
got the little lure on the tongue which makes them extremely
specialized. They live up to 200 years. They go up to 200 pounds-plus,” John
a lot to get excited about.”
are enough people excited about alligator snapping turtles
to support John’s business, which caters primarily
to reptile dealers overseas but also individual turtle
fanciers in America. His Web site, www.turtleman.com,
receives more than 200,000 hits a month. “There’s
a lot of people just like me,” he says.
customers are medical professionals who display turtles
in their waiting rooms and hobbyists who want stunning
specimens for their personal collections. John says
one Japanese client constructed a 5,000-gallon aquarium in
his living room and ordered a 135-pound alligator snapper.
collects eggs from nests his breeding turtles lay around his
pond. It is illegal to collect native alligator snapping turtles
or their eggs from the wild in Missouri. John buys breeding
stock from Louisiana and is licensed in Missouri to raise these
sent me pictures of the turtle in the tank in the
wall of his living room,” John says. “That’s
one of those guys — I’m
not going to say more money than sense — he
knows what he likes. It’s
a strange world we live in.”
a trained professional chef before launching his
turtle enterprise, has never eaten turtle nor has
he prepared it. “I think it’s one
of those things you have to grow up eating to really
like,” he says.
Besides, John says
he is fanatical about protecting the species. Harvest for food
is one of the greatest threats to turtle populations
worldwide, especially in Asia but also in Louisiana
where trappers have taken 80 percent of the population.
John says his business
requires finding a balance between supporting the trappers who supply
him while not encouraging over harvest. It’s
a dilemma he’s
faced almost from the day he first began buying
baby alligator snappers by the sackfull in the mid-1980s.
don’t want to encourage them but on the other hand the law
says they can collect them. Once that turtle is
caught it’s either going to
go to market for food or I’m going to
get it,” he says.
John began to wonder if there wasn’t
a market for alligator snappers among turtle
hobbyists like himself. Armed with a $50
breeders permit from the Missouri Department
of Conservation, he set out to see.
ran a $12 ad in the back of Reptiles magazine
and my mother-in-law and my wife at the
time said, ‘You fool, nobody wants those
things but you,’” John
says. “I started getting phone calls
from Tokyo, Barcelona, Paris.”
gathers about 4,000 alligator snapper eggs each year. When
these hatch he sells the turtles to hobbyists around the country
the help of a knowledgeable shipping
agent John began to navigate a labyrinth ofstate,
federal and international rules and regulations.
He learned to obtain affidavits that
attest to the origins of the animals he buys and
permits which allow him to ship and sell
turtles. He studied export laws and became
an expert at packing large, live animals
for overseas shipment — which primarily
involves burlap bags, ventilated Tupperware
and arrows pointing up.
dealers in Louisiana sell far more
snappers than John, few deal in large specimens
and none are willing to bother with
the hassles of international sales.
“If you want
a big alligator snapper and you’re somewhere on the
planet chances are you’re going
to have to go through me,” says
got the connections. I know the people
who raise them. I can get them. I
can get them safely and legally overseas
Even if there
were other sources, John says his
clients would likely still buy
the large snappers from him. Besides
knowledge of the law, he says he
offers a good product.
thing I offer them is legal,
licensed animals at a fair price and I stand
behind what I sell. If they have
problems it’s my problem,” he
says. “The only surprises
I want for my customers are good
ones, not bad ones.”
he says he wants all his clients,
as well as visitors to the
zoos and aquariums he supplies to
share in his enjoyment of the
species. To this end, John
has spoken at schools and nature
centers and hosted crews from
the Animal Planet and the Discovery
Channel cable television networks
at his facility. “I
get extreme joy out of people
finding the same fascination
that I find in these animals.”
|Richards holds a handful of eggs gathered from nests the turtles
make around his pond.
does not mean there aren’t
limits to John’s generosity.
With his livelihood stacked
on shelves, waiting to hatch,
he is apprehensive about
uninvited guests. In fact,
reluctant to reveal the exact
location of his farm after
TV coverage of a tour of
innovative ag businesses
led by U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt
brought publicity too close
day I had people knocking
on my door at nine in the
here to see the turtle
recalls the visitors announcing. “That’s
my worst nightmare. I don’t
want this to be a circus
side show out here.”
some ways, that makes
John a bit like the turtles
he loves. Although alligator
snappers are native to Missouri’s Bootheel and a few rivers that drain
through it, most people
in the state rarely see one in the wild. Perhaps because they are so mysterious,
John says, alligator snapping turtles attract attention wherever they’re
“There is something about the alligator snapping turtle that
draws fascination,” John
says. “I see it.
I see the eyes fixed
on the turtle when you’re
talking to a group. You
command the attention
of 5-year-olds to 95-year-olds.”