Rusty Reed is a bit disappointed in how little Chicagoans know about turtles. "People keep saying they've never seen a turtle like Crunch," he says, "but there was an even bigger one at the Brookfield Zoo for 45 years!" Reed is the owner of Crunch, a creamy green, 165-pound alligator snapping turtle who is over four feet long and somewhere between 150 and 200 years old. Crunch is in town as one of the hot attractions at the 2006 Chicagoland Outdoor Show in Rosemont, where he's sitting motionless on the rocks at the bottom of his illuminated travel aquarium. Three men with mustaches, obviously coworkers, pass by holding plastic beer cups on their way to the animal-jerky mega booth around the corner. Noticing Crunch, one of the men teases his friend: "Hey, you're just like that turtle!" The other man, laughing, joins in: "Yeah, it takes you three hours to paint the line!"
Reed runs the Blackwater Turtle Refuge in Churubusco, Indiana, a small town near Fort Wayne. He used to have over 60 turtles but is now down to four, having sold most of them to zoos over the last few years. He purchased Crunch in 1989 from a man who had rescued him from a cannery ten years before. The largest freshwater turtles in North America, alligator snappers were hunted for their meat and brought to the brink of extinction by the 1970s. Today they're a protected species in their native states, and Reed spends five weeks a year on tour with Crunch to promote conservation efforts.
But Reed is more than Crunch's keeper: he's his hype man. He switches off his headset mike and explains his strategy. "It's a studied statistic at zoos: people only look at each exhibit for 11 seconds," he says with a smirk. "Lions, tigers, whatever--only 11 seconds. So, now, the shock value of Crunch may lure people in--you know, some people have never seen a turtle like this--and my job is to add the entertainment value. My job is to use that minute to let them know that this turtle is amazing. You gotta be in their face, because if you get them listening, they will stay around until you are done talking.
"You know, [America] doesn't have elephants roaming around," he adds, "but we do have the largest freshwater turtles in the world."
Just then Reed overhears a little boy asking his father if the turtle is dead, and springs into action. Turning his mike back on, he announces that Crunch only moves to come up for air every 24 to 30 minutes. If they want to stick around, he assures, the turtle will be up for a breath in a couple minutes. Then he checks his watch. "I make sure never to say 'last breath,'" Reed says with his microphone still on, "but he last came up at 3:46, so he could breathe again anytime now."
Two high school seniors, Nick Olsen and Andrew Grzelak of Deerfield, decided to wait around for Crunch to surface. They're both avid fishermen and decided to hit the outdoor show after they finished exams earlier in the day. "I've never seen a turtle like this--it's awesome," said Grzelak, who was entranced. "I'm not leaving till he breathes."
Six minutes later the faithful are rewarded: Crunch, using his front claws and tail, lifts himself toward the surface very slowly. Poking his nostrils up so gently they don't even make a ripple on the surface, he takes a breath, then returns to his previous spot at the bottom of the aquarium.
Reed switches off the headset again. "See, somebody's gotta do the talking," he says, laughing. "He's a little boring otherwise."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.