Pastor's Corner

Turtles Crossing the Highway


During our time living in Pierre, South Dakota, either one or two times a week I would head north out of the Capital city to the two other churches in my district, Tolstoy and Mobridge. I was basically the pastor for the entire central section of South Dakota, an area of approximately 200 miles, bordering North Dakota on the north and Nebraska on the south. The state route that went north to south was Route 83. Driving north on Route 83 took me right across the northern prairie, complete with beautiful prairie flowers and tons of pheasant. It was also apparently a fertile place for turtles roaming around.


One Sabbath morning as I was driving north on Route 83, around Onida, to my first Sabbath service of the day in Tolstoy, I noticed a box turtle crossing the road in the other lane. It was morning, and State Route 83 was usually not a busy highway. I drove past the slow moving reptile. However, about two minutes later, a large truck heading south blew past me in the opposite direction. I remember thinking that I hope that turtle got safely onto the other side. It was about ten hours later as I was driving south on 83 back home to Pierre, around Onida, when I saw a crushed box turtle on the highway, its shell flattened and blood all around. I felt terrible that I had not rescued that crossing box turtle, assuming that with usually light traffic that turtle would make it to safety. ( It had already made it through the northern lane and was a good halfway through the southern lane). I vowed that if I ever saw another box turtle crossing highway 83, I would immediately stop my car, run out and pick it up and carry it safely onto the other side of the road. I guess I just needed to be more like Henry Bergh.


In the origins of the animal rights movement in the mid-19 century, green turtles played a key role. In 1866, Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, sued a captain Calhoun, who had brought on his ship 100 stacked green turtles, all ready to be killed and made into the key delicacy of that time: turtle soup. For weeks during the voyage north, the poor stacked animals had been deprived of both food and water. “Worse still, the captain had flipped them upside down to immobilize them and had bound them together with a rope pierced through their flippers, creating wounds that still oozed after weeks at sea.” (A Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement , Ernest Freeberg, p. 7). In Bergh’s eyes, when he looked at these poor, mute creatures, he saw suffering and human cruelty. Bergh, a religious man, believed that when the “Great Creator” gave life to “the poor despised turtle,” He also gave it “feeling and certain rights as well as ourselves.” (Freeberg, p. 14). Bergh’s suit for animal cruelty against the turtles failed in court, but it had set a precedent to be followed by later animal rights activists.


About one month later on a Sabbath morning, as I was

heading north on 83, once again around Onida, I spotted a slow moving box turtle creeping across the highway. The creature was slowly moving out of my northern lane into the southern lane. I quickly applied the brakes, pulled over to the side of the highway and ran out onto the highway to rescue it. As I grabbed it by the back of its shell, it poked its head out and began hissing at me. I quickly ran it across the road and placed it back down in the direction it had originally been heading. I stepped back and saw it slowly resume its trek across the lonely northern prairie. I got back in my car and drove toward my first Sabbath appointment at Tolstoy. No more than ten minutes later I spotted another turtle slowly making its way across the highway. I did the same thing as before, picking the reptile up by the back of its shell, the head angrily coming out of its shell hissing at me, and my running it safely across the highway and placing it back on the ground and allowing it to resume on its journey.


Since that time about thirteen years ago, I have not seen any other turtles crossing a highway that I have been driving on. Like us, they were also made by the hand of God and also given the “breath of life” by our Creator, but, unlike us, the turtle, along with the rest of the animal kingdom, obeyed God and went into the ark and survived the Flood. In my own small way, as a lover of “all creatures, great and small,” I was glad I was able to help two small helpless creatures of God to safety on a Sabbath morning outside Onida, South Dakota on State Highway 83. I am sure that the late Henry Bergh of the ASPCA would have approved of my actions (though I am sure that Captain Bergh would have also rescued that first turtle I saw crossing the highway).

Pastor Fred Shoemaker

Phone: 740.507.7499