The Turtles on Campus
Terrence, a rotund black Richland College student likely in his early 20s wearing a Craig Robinson afro, threw bread as a matter of routine. I met him on a bridge spanning Thunderduck Lake, which snakes north-to-south on the college campus, last summer. He held a magic bag of white hot dog buns that conjured creatures. He tore and tossed walnut-sized morsels from the bridge to the pond. Dozens of turtles bobbed to the surface, necks outstretched, like so many algae-encased coconuts. The algae was ragged layers, some places having broken away and left the naked shell or been replaced with greener plants. These organisms strung off the backs and sides of each carapace like the addled beard of Tolkein’s Radagast, obscuring the intricate scute patterns on the turtle shells. Voracious heads shot from the fronts of the coconuts to gobble Terrence’s oddments.
I tried to see this scene from the reptiles’ angle: shadowy hominids, haloed by waving trees and Dallas’s great sky, shedding manna.
Let’s be clear at the outset: Feeding wildlife is bad, especially when done with a food like hot dog buns. It can cause animals to depend on humans for a full stomach, artificially inflate populations in given ecosystems, attract alien predators and cause a host of other problems.
“I love nature,” Terrence said, slipping more bait to the feeding frenzy. “I love being out here and seeing the animals.” There was nothing for it — I didn’t confront Terrence with the implications of his sins.
Richland College is as close as it gets to bucolic in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (DFW). North Texas is heavily paved, with unglued byways snaking insanely around each other high-above and far-below, an environment built so humans would stay in their cars. More than 99 percent of North Texas has been plowed up, razed, clear-cut, diverted, built upon, transformed. Richland is not that. There are other green spaces in DFW than Richland, sure, but the campus seems more authentic than many. Its 250-acre plot sits on a former farm the Republic of Texas bequeathed to a Tennessee empresario when white people started, in any number, arriving here in the 1840s. It is gentle hills, many built from construction dirt. Like all watersheds in Texas, it barely slopes southeast, to the Gulf of Mexico.
A Dallas Morning News reporter wrote in the late 1960s, when Richland College was proposed, that Dallas County’s junior college district chancellor was enthusiastic about this land’s prospects:
“This has been the estate of a very wealthy family,” Dr. [Bill] Priest said, pointing out that it was developed 45 years ago.
“By far, it has the heaviest forestation of any site we have.” He termed the landscape “tremendous — if we just leave it as it is. The challenge is in working the buildings into it.”
The school is now one of the nation’s largest community colleges, hosting an enrollment of 21,000, with low-slung buildings lining Thunderduck Lake — worked into the landscape. It is a minute, subtle, self-contained example in a global sphere of constructed places where wildlife spills into the human experience, simultaneously causing strife and joy among its human neighbors. Humans complain about the wildlife and turn around to feed it, inviting it to stay and providing it with luxuriant quarter.
When I got here, I did not expect a sense of ecological fullness anywhere in DFW, the northernmost metropolis on a north-to-south streak of blackland prairie that continues more than a three-hour drive south past Austin. But this campus would seem agrarian if not for the buildings, most of which were erected in 1972. I moved from Colorado to an apartment complex down the street from Richland College in late 2017 for a day job. I had a blend of noxious preconceptions about Texas and its sprawling cities, mainly that Texans don’t value green space and want either to pave everything over or let their cattle and oil rigs chew it up. I knew the city was a notorious urban heat island, growing in temperature faster than most cities. Dallas proper can be 15 degrees warmer than surrounding rural areas. DFW is the seventh largest metropolis in the United States.
When I first arrived, I got hard at work confirming my notions. I observed: My immediate surroundings were shifty convenience stores, Asian markets, pavement and, to the south, a horizon of skyscrapers. But while DFW is expanding at a frightening rate, my perception of this place turned out to be untrue in palpable ways. Nowhere were they more disproven than on Richland College, where a bustling student body shares prairie with a vibrant ecology and is buffered from the city by tree brakes on the north and a quaint condominium development to the south.
The campus is located a few short blocks from my apartment, so I started running to the jogging track at Richland College with my golden retriever for exercise. The grass fields were often soggy and swollen with rainwater and the carefully manicured tree community was lush. Turtles, Canada geese, ducks, rabbits, stocked fish and an assortment of other birds and insects teemed here. It seemed a good spot to observe nature for some graduate courses that required me to do so. And so I started coming here for more than the exercise, to watch the wildlife.
My interaction with Terrence took place on one of these excursions. It lasted no longer than five minutes until he ducked off to class. Here to snap some shots for a photography course, I was not in full research mode, and I didn’t write down Terrence’s last name or ask him any questions. Terrence said he fed the turtles because he liked to observe nature, and I can’t blame him. The nether melee was desperately entertaining, sparking at once a sense of wonder and a desire to get closer to the grumpy reptiles.
The turtles — red-eared sliders and river cooters, between eight and 12 inches long — fought over the bread. Unannounced, a spiny softshell turtle — a monstrosity compared with the others — rose from the murk below to claim a disproportionate share of real-estate. This intruder was the size of a manhole cover, her great brown leathery integument displacing more surface territory than three or four of the smaller turtles, which scattered. She must have been a female — her back was mottled and she was far larger than any male of her species. Her feet, a mess of claws, webs and yellow stripes, knocked her competitors away. Her comically long neck slithered from her shell like a snake from under a rock, stealing the largest of the bread into an unhinged mouth just below her elongated pig snout, which she used as a snorkel.
Quickly as she rose, she disappeared, and the smaller reptiles resumed their purchase. Terrence remained for the moment, tossing bread. The more he threw the more turtles gathered in a feedback loop until, checking his watch, Terrence announced he had to get to class.
During my academic trips to Thunderduck Lake, I often snagged turtles from the pond. They were too difficult to catch on the spillway at the south end, which holds most of the water from rushing down Ferris Creek and into White Rock Lake. The smaller turtles sunned themselves on this dam, but when I approached within 30 feet of them they would skitter into the water. From the spillway they frighted from humans because that place was not where they were fed. In contrast, when I closed in on the shoreline anywhere north of the spillway, the turtles swarmed, expectant, conditioned, dozens strong. They saw me as a source of nourishment, easier than and novel to the dreary fare — consisting of pond weeds and feces — at the floor. The pond is lined with a gabion basket, a kind of retaining wall made of rock encased in wire mesh to prevent shore erosion, and this was my perch. I lay with my front end over the water, arms dangling down. I tossed small bits of foliage the less experienced turtles thought were food scraps. Most turned away before coming within three or four feet, but a few curious turtles were hungry enough to venture within reach. I grabbed them by the sides of the shell and hauled them ashore.
One large turtle, probably 10 inches, was particularly upset with her abduction. (I checked what harm capturing a turtle does — they don’t like it, but they aren’t poisoned by the oils on my skin, like an amphibian would be, and released, they go their merry way.) She withdrew into her carapace, snarling at me from this safe realm, her jaws agape, mouth drawing down around jagged serrations and back up into a prominent halfway notch arching gracefully toward her upturned snout. Her hind feet kicked in the harried rhythm of panicked escape — one in front of the other, never giving up, intent to claw and slice to freedom. I was able to admire the brilliant yellow stripes that snaked from her carapace up her neck and tapered to a point around her eyes and mouth.
She was a river cooter, one of five species, by the assessment of a regional herpetologist, that likely live in the pond. The other four are the aforementioned red-eared slider and spiny softshell turtle, along with the common snapping turtle and musk turtle. The cooters are vegetarians, eating only algae and other aquatic plants, the others omnivores who also make meals out of worms, fish, detritus. The Canada gosling, spawn of ecological interlopers at Richland that have become prominent fixtures on campus, is an occasional victim. Ducklings, also relative newcomers to this particular pond, are devoured, too.
I came here to observe the animals, but there was a deeper level to this ecology, one of humans interacting with wildlife, at first thoughtlessly and lately with a deep concern about the wildlife’s wellbeing and that of the larger campus ecology.
Though its water is muddy and addled with shit and chemicals washing down from the housing development to the north — certainly nothing for a human to take a dip in — the surface activity is plenty to suffice for what cannot be seen below. Canada geese, northern shovelnose, lesser scaup, double-crested cormorants, scissor-tailed flycatchers, ravens, great egrets, great blue herons and barn swallows flit, argue, flap and eat together over the surface of Thunderduck Lake. Many of these species can also be seen along comparatively unadulterated stretches of riparian habitat in North Texas and DFW. But the geese, ducks and cormorants might not be here except for the pond, which is a human contour that predates the college by more than a decade.
Before the pond, there was only a small stream, Ferris Creek, currently about 15 or 20 feet across just below the spillway, dry in the summer. In the pond’s murk, there are thousands of channel catfish, Florida largemouth bass and bluegill, stocked by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD), that fishermen angle for, along with uncounted minnows, insects and crayfish. The turtles are creatures in between, bobbing along the surface, basking on the duckling ramps and the three circulatory fountains when they’re not spraying water.
It all amounts to a veritable aquatic menagerie of nature’s captivating interplays. Adjacent to the administrative building complex, the proximity makes for tight living quarters with humans. The most obvious boundary between wildlife and humans is the building walls, but even those are inadequate sometimes. Ron Clark, the vice president for Business Services at the school, told me the occasional water snake slips into the buildings, and the college district police have to remove her. In an unsettling YouTube clip, a Canada goose tries its best to break through the windows overlooking the pond’s fountains and into the food court, belting the glass with its formidable wings, bang … bang, bang.
They interact, humans and wildlife, often clumsily, without either party considering the ecological implications. Navigating these interactions is a delicate feat for the college and its students, practically, ecologically and legally. Students sometimes have to cross the street to make way for a group of pedestrian goslings, lest their parents attack, as they have been known to do. Every person I talked to about the geese had an attack story about herself or an acquaintance. The Canada geese cannot be removed without a special license and designated personnel because federal regulations protect them. The Richland College facilities management department and student groups are active trying to establish some equanimity between the two not-entirely-separate communities. Fliers discouraging people from feeding the wildlife were distributed in the fall 2018 semester.
To keep the geese from nesting among the people, the college installed artificial nests around the north end of the pond, away from campus thoroughfares. I counted several eggs in these during two January visits. The school also constructs ramps during brooding seasons for ducklings to crawl up the vertical gabion walls and escape the turtles. This all adds up.
Richland College has expanded to accommodate a growing student population, meticulously projected by policymakers and demographers. At the same time, it is adjusting to accommodate a nuanced, guessed-at and dynamic wildlife population, hastily assessed by thin-spread naturalists and ecologists. More and more, Richland College has employed rigor, thought and repurposed construction materials to become a de jure wildlife habitat, forged with the intent of keeping wild animals close, living well with them.
But as people continue to expand into places that were once wild, many other public places have become de facto habitats for vibrant wildlife communities. Military bases, public parks, highway underpasses, airports, drag race tracks — anywhere that isn’t razed for skyscraper construction, and even then the peregrine falcon takes root.