It didn't blink. It didn't unfurl its tail. It just stood there, inches from the water.
"Come on buddy," said Brian Mihura, trying to coax the turtle into safe refuge. "It's downhill from here. It's easy."
Lately, things haven't been easy for the 54-pound turtle.
A two-inch groove stretched across its bony skull, most likely the remnant of a fight with another male alligator snapping turtle.
In early December, it got wedged inside a drainage pipe in north Houston, and the rescue turned into a viral sensation.
Since getting sprung from the pipe, things have definitely been looking up. Over the past month, the alligator snapping turtle has been getting plenty of rest and top-notch veterinary care at the Wildlife Center of Texas.
On Wednesday, the turtle – along with another alligator snapping turtle – were safely released into a Houston-area bayou, a place where scientists know there is an established population of alligator snapping turtles.
"It's kind of like a bar scene for turtles," said Jordan Gray with the Turtle Survival Alliance. "You have quite a few females here, and they'll probably leave when the males show up but they're going to follow them. That's how I would explain turtledom."
That's because alligator snapping turtles are a threatened species in Texas. Their numbers are dwindling because of habitat loss, exotic pet trade and over-harvesting.
If you don't believe someone would want to eat an alligator snapping turtle, consider the smaller turtle released Wednesday.
Someone found the 37-pound turtle in a parking lot in College Station last fall. It had deep stab wounds to its head and legs.
Center officials theorize that someone caught it, tried to kill it, gave up and dumped it in the parking lot, where it found refuge under a truck.
Texas A&M veterinarians stitched the turtle back up and it's been rehabbing at the center ever since.
Its recovery was somewhat overshadowed by the rescue of the turtle from the drainage pipe.
To free that one, rescuers had to borrow "jaws of life" equipment from a nearby fire department. Center officials estimate the turtle had been stuck for several days. Behind the turtle in the pipe were several dead turtles – including two alligator snapping turtles.
Video footage of the unusual rescue went viral.
"The story went everywhere, even the UK," said Anni Ranck, of the Wildlife Center of Texas.
"The funny thing was it didn't exactly generate a lot of donations for its care. I guess most people don't find them very cute and cuddly."
Gray thinks of them as living dinosaurs. It's easy to understand why.
Covered in bony armor and sporting a tail you don't typically see on turtles, male alligator snapping turtles can weigh almost 200 pounds. And they are growing increasingly rare throughout the southern United States.
The Wildlife Center of Texas has only cared for three alligator snapping turtles in the past three years.
To understand how hard it is to even find one these days, consider this: Center officials received requests from museums for the shells of the dead alligator snapping turtles found in the pipe.
"To be involved in the release of an alligator snapping turtle, this is rare," Mihura said.
Gray and others with the Turtle Survival Alliance plan to monitor the two alligator snapping turtles released Wednesday. Both had their shells notched and were fitted with microchips.
Members of the group are trying to get a better handle on the population of turtles that live in the Houston area to better understand how to protect them.
What they do know is that one of the greatest threats the turtles face is from leftover monofilament fishing line, which can wrap around and cause them to drown.
"I think the main thing we want to ask people to do is to not cut their fishing line," Gray said. "They should try to the best of their ability to untangle their line."
The turtles, he explained, are pretty sedentary and unlikely to roam back to exact location. Likewise, the release site was carefully selected because there are no drainage pipes close by.
As the volunteers hoisted the big turtle out a plastic bin, it opened its massive jaws, and it seemed to be smiling for the camera, a last close-up, hopefully ever.
They sat the turtle on the ground, and it eventually took one step, then another. Then it quietly slipped under the water.
(Houston Chronicle - Jan 11, 2017)