Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
The lure of
the loggerhead

John Richards' fascination with alligator snapping turtles hatches a business

by Bob McEowen

John RIchards hoists an alligator snapping turtle weighing more than 100 pounds. Richards sells the big snappers to turtle hobbyists worldwide.

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 quite explain.

“It’s 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 says.

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.

“I raise 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 says.

But more than anything else, he raises alligator snappers, or loggerheads, as they’re known in Louisiana.

Tiny 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 grow slowly.

Alligator snappers 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.

“I’ve 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 world.

“It’s 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 says. “There’s a lot to get excited about.”

Worldwide, there 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.

Among John’s 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.

John 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 non-native turtles.

“He 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.”

Ironically, John, 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.

“I 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.

During the mid-’90s 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.

“I 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.”

John gathers about 4,000 alligator snapper eggs each year. When these hatch he sells the turtles to hobbyists around the country and overseas.

With 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.

Although turtle 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 John. “I’ve got the connections. I know the people who raise them. I can get them. I can get them safely and legally overseas or domestically.”

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.

“The 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.”

Besides, 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.

That 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, he’s 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 for comfort.

“The next day I had people knocking on my door at nine in the morning. ‘We’re here to see the turtle farm,’” John recalls the visitors announcing. “That’s my worst nightmare. I don’t want this to be a circus side show out here.”

In 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 displayed.

“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.”

 

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