Science Class, the Circle of Life, and Turtle Soup

You already know from previous posts that I grew up in a very rural area. We were close to the “circle of life” as it exists in modern America.

I’ve eaten eggs that I’ve pulled, still warm, from under the soft feathers of docile free-range hens.  I’ve patted the foreheads of cows that provide milk, and I’ve patted the flanks of cows and pigs being raised to provide meat.   I was a little squicked by the idea of people eating rabbits, because I had rabbits as pets.   Overall, I understood the idea that we are omnivores and that we raise some animals with the intent to someday eat them.

People in my area often hunted deer during the fall. For many, this was the cheapest way to secure a winter’s worth of protein for the family. For many, this was economically necessary.  A sentimental girl, I was upset about eating Bambi at first. But I also understood what a devastation the population of deer could be on an environment without many natural predators.  They would die of sickness and hunger if we didn’t thin the herds.  We had made ourselves apex predators, and it was our responsibility to fulfill that role.

This all made sense to me.  I think it made sense to just about everyone out where we lived. I tell you all of this because whenever I tell this story, people freak out.  Lacking the context of the wilderness and farming, they wonder how people get away with these things without law suits.  They think this story is crazy. In my mind, it was one of the best lessons I ever had in school.

My High School science teacher didn’t believe in buying preserved animals for dissection. He believed in the value of lessons that could be learned via the process and discovery of dissection, but he saw the little formaldehyde-soaked specimens as a waste. Their lives were wasted. They were taken out of the ecosystem unfairly. So we never used those.   He was famous for bringing in roadkill for the class to dissect, or a sheep that was culled from a farmer’s herd.  The sheep made me sick, I had to go to the clinic and skip that lesson because of the smell. I missed most of that class.

I did not miss the week we studied turtles.  

I had grown up adequately respectful and terrified of the huge snapping turtles that were native to the streams, river and lake in the State Park where I spent most of my free time.  Adult snappers were easily a foot in diameter, if not a little larger, and though they wouldn’t take off an arm or anything, they were capable of stripping your flesh down to the bone on any body part they could get their jaws around.

Our biology teacher set two of them loose in the classroom on Monday.

While we took notes on their decentralized nervous systems, they meandered the slick linoleum floors.  There is nothing like having to lift your feet under your desk because a huge snapping turtle has decided that’s where it wants to hang out. I still remember that entire lesson.   Their decentralized nervous systems were important, because like chickens, when beheaded, their bodies would still move around for a while.  Their pain centers are in the brain in the head, but the body is fairly self-sufficient without it.  The lungs still breathe, the heart still beats.

On Thursday, we dissected them.

They took one for each advanced bio class. They beheaded the snapper behind the school, and then brought in the wriggling body for the class to observe, experience and touch.  I held the snapper’s still-beating heart in my hand.  It was an experience that will forever be a part of me.

On Friday, we ate turtle soup.

This might gross some people out. I respect it. I respected it then, as a teenager. Those lives did not go to waste. Yes, we learned from them. Yes, they scared the bejeesus out of us for a few days earlier in the week.  And then they entered the circle of life, rather than a trash can.   The soup was delicious. My teacher had taken the bodies home and cooked it the night before. He brought in a huge pot of it, and set it up on a Bunsen burner for the day.

Does this bother you? Or delight you? Do you see it as a valuable lesson about respecting life, like I did? Or do you just gape in wonder that no parents ever once complained about this lesson to the principal?

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5 thoughts on “Science Class, the Circle of Life, and Turtle Soup

  1. Love this! I think it is very cool that your teacher brought in road kill to dissect as well as cooked up the turtle. I tried to help a large snapping turtle off the road in rural NC…I tried to help push it off with a large stick. I remember it flipping on me really fast (no, not all turtles move slow) and chomped through the large stick like it was butter. I let him be, convince he was so tough and mean, no car would dare run him over!!

    • Yeah, these guys could have been quick as they wandered the class if they felt threatened. They were moving slowly because they were just exploring and meandering. We kept well clear of them!!

  2. I think that you gained some valuable life experiences, those that are limited to the children fortunate enough to grow up and learn these things. We never thought that it was wrong or incorrect that you learn about your environment and the cause and effect circle of life. Not to mention some might fine eating.

    Ahh..and the annual neighborhood Ground Hog’s Day dinner yielded some tasty treats, didn’t it? Do you remember the first one we took you to?

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