Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Suppon (or Animal Salvage Part II)

We like to think ourselves reasonably adaptable, though there are a few things in Japan we’ll probably never come to peace with. One of them is the rampant superstition that thoroughly pervades and degrades nearly every part of society, be it as a propensity for gambling, letting fortune tellers control one’s life, etc, etc. To each his/her own, we suppose, go ahead and ruin yourself. But we are rubbed the wrong way by the mistreatment of other living things. Probably imported from China a very long time ago, logic such as: a viper is long and thick, its venom potent; kill it, dry it, powder it, consume it, and the erstwhile qualities will somehow be transferred to your own trouser snake. Or, medieval 'wisdom' like: a turtle lives a long life, and an eel’s body is long, so for your own longevity devour either.

This superstition may also contribute to what feels like (to a Westerner anyway) a pervasive lack of respect for living things. Snakes, turtles, eels and other slimy wild creatures are hunted down, but they are totally unimportant compared to the fish populations around Japan, all but depleted by headlong overfishing with not even a distant hope of regulation. Livestock are penned up in body size stalls for their entire lives (Japanese steaks go for $70, prized for their 'softness' since the animal was deprived of any significant movement while alive). Hokkaido milk cows, although free roaming, don't have it much better: their tails, viewed as a nuisance while milking, are tourniqueted till they 'naturally' fall off. In an odd lack of discrimination from animals, humans too are worked like slaves, many finally keeling over from chronic injury or overwork, if they don't first end their miserable lives in suicide. Attitudes towards other nationalities are wholly unacceptable, and politicians see no reason to apologize internationally for 60-year-old war heinosities; prime ministers worship enshrined war criminals, and the populace is frustrated and confused by why neighboring countries won't stop nagging. Like I say, we’re not animal or human rights activists or anything…this nonsense just seems hard to get used to.

Our one Canadian colleague at work shared this sentiment, it seems, when three suppon (softshell turtles, Pelodiscus sinensis) appeared at the local general store. As it became obvious to her they are to be eaten and their blood drunk or whatever, she became distressed, and when I told her I know just the perfect place to release them, she proceeded to bail them out (at about $40 for the lot). Three very lucky suppon were soon swimming around in my bathtub.

Avid readers of our blog (ha!) will remember Salvage Part I when we saved Bambi at the Goto Islands. There, too, the comment from the locals was, should’ve clubbed it over the head when you had the chance. So we’re not even gonna attempt to explain this suppon thing to any of the natives.

A suppon is really a pretty interesting creature, not to mention it's so ugly that it's cute. Its soft, flat shell gives it a low profile and this combined with its webbed feet makes it a great swimmer.

You talkin' to me?

It compensates for its soft vulnerability with razor sharp “teeth” and an ornery temperament. Like the Canadian snapping turtle, the suppon, although much smaller, is still quite dangerous.

Its neck can pop out incredibly far (is this why it’s sought after?) and can shoot out and catch a fish or deliver a nasty bite “before lightning strikes the ground” as the local saying goes. It is also an expert in burrowing in the mud. With only the top of its camouflaged head protruding, it waits for prey. Occasionally, telescoping its long neck slowly, it uses its supple, pig-like snout or mini-trunk to take a breath without making the slightest disturbance of the water surface, giving no warning of its presence to surface-dwelling insect prey.

After a two-day stay in the tub, the three suppons took a little trip with me to an undisclosed location where they will be safe from its main predator. Suppons are usually caught in polluted rivers or ponds, and they are starved for who knows how long to purge them of ‘impurities’ before they are eaten (as if that was going to help), so it was no surprise my traveling companions were quite dejected and exhausted. But upon immersion in pure, clean pond water (this place is as far from pollution as one can get in Amakusa anyway), the poor buggers suddenly came alive. On release, they immediately buried themselves in the soft deep mud, a tactic that seems to serve them better than trying to escape. Here’s hoping to three properly long turtle lives!

A suppon in its natural environment.

That's Nature for you: eat or be eaten. Humans oughta be smart enough to break the rules sometimes...

Our 'pond's' new inhabitant.

It’s been very wet and humid in Amakusa this past month – a somewhat belated rainy season. People are complaining but it’s not bugging me any. At least there won’t be announcements on the town bomb raid system that the dam is low on water 3 times a day, two months in a row, like happened 2 years ago. Somehow that drove me bonkers. Anyways, our water lily ‘pond’ by our front door likes the rain. Over time it’s been a mini ecosystem for sundry temporary dwellers: a large brown grasshopper overwintered on the dry reeds, not moving at all for 3 months. One hint of spring and he was gone. Later the water teemed with dragonfly larvae, which soon pupated and flew away. And a week ago, the pond was discovered by this tiny tree frog (about an inch long). Figuring he's found an A-1 breeding spot, he’s trying very hard every night to attract a mate. His croaking must be at least 80 decibels; it’s incredible how such a tiny thing can make so much noise. Our neighbors hate him, I’m sure – people here think even songbirds are noisy! Not the bomb raid system, though, nor the police helicopters that circle overhead with a PA that actually blares over the rotor noise, reminding the neighborhood to fasten your seatbelt should you go out for a drive.


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