Chinatown Turtle Tug of War Felt in Central Park
BY BRADLEY HOPE, New York Sun, August 17, 2007
New York, USA -- In Chinatown, turtles are the center of a tug of war whose ramifications are being felt at the Central Park Turtle Pond. One side makes turtles into soups that are ladled into the bowls of the elderly, the pregnant, and the recently born in the hopes of imparting longevity.
<< Neal Sigel drops turtles rescued from the East River into the Turtle Pond in Central Park.
The other group, mostly Buddhists, is buying up turtles from food markets and "setting them free" into the East River.
Neither side appears to know that the quiet war of ideas over reptiles is leading, in part, to a proliferation of a non-native species in the Turtle Pond.
It is left to Neal Siegel, 50, and his girlfriend, Charme Chen, 29, to deal with the aftermath.
Each day, Mr. Siegel walks along the stretch of the East River promenade between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges to look for turtles in need of rescue.
A group of Chinese Buddhists — no one knows how many — take their belief to the extreme on holidays and special occasions, casting turtles into the East River to set them free. The practice is called fangsheng, or "release of life," and dates back to the 6th century. Setting turtles or other animals free increases a Buddhist's merit, which is believed to translate into a better rebirth.
The species of turtle most commonly found in Chinatown — and consequently the East River and the Turtle Pond — is the red-eared slider, which originates from the tributaries leading into the Mississippi River. It cannot survive in the brackish waters around Manhattan, according to herpetologists.
"There's one," Mr. Siegel said with concern during one of his recent walks accompanied by a reporter and Ms. Chen. He then leaped over the railing onto a sandy area to rescue a small red-eared slider with a badly damaged shell. "This is no place for a turtle," he said. "There is no place to come up on land and rest. It's hard for them to find food."
At home, Mr. Siegel cleans their shells, nourishes them, and lets them recover before bringing them up to the Turtle Pond. Ms. Chen, a singer whom he met through a Web site, tends to give them names such as Sugar Free and Sailor Moon.
Mr. Siegel, wearing a floppy sun hat with a metal gecko attached to the front, a pink shirt, and cargo pants, can often be seen looking for turtles with binoculars.
He said he first witnessed the practice of releasing turtles about two years ago, when he saw a woman with a burlap bag full of more than 100 turtles toss them in, one by one.
He managed to save only about eight that day, he said. The rest either drowned or were carried off to areas where he couldn't get to them.
A reporter observed the "fangsheng" practice on August 1 — the 19th day of the sixth month in the lunar calendar. On that day hundreds of years ago, Princess Miaoshan, the human manifestation of the Buddhist bodhisattva Guanyin, left home to begin practicing religion, according to Buddhist texts.
The women painted red symbols on the backs of the turtles, including the "svasti," the symbol adopted by the Nazi party. They said a prayer over the turtles and then pushed them over the edge into the water five feet below. The women declined to be interviewed.
The symbols on the back say "all," and "release of life," according to a professor of Chinese Buddhism at Columbia University, Chun-fang Yu. The ritual dates back to Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty, a Buddhist leader who built universities and decreed that animals should not be killed. In Asian countries with Buddhist populations, there has of late been a movement to stop the practice altogether.
A resident monk at the Grace Gratitude Buddhist Temple, Ben Kong, said the Buddhists still practicing fangsheng in New York City were ignorant of the harm they cause to the local ecosystem and the turtles.
"It's a sad situation," he said.
He said his temple has been trying to educate some of the congregants. They even came up with a new word, "fangsi," which means "release of death."
"The main thing is that we don't have something of value to replace it with," Mr. Kong said, adding that the temple may suggest that Buddhists donate money to environmental and animal welfare organizations as a new way to practice "fangsheng."
This practice, and the fact that other New Yorkers may be getting rid of pet turtles in Central Park, has led to a proliferation of red-eared sliders, according to Maria Hernandez, the gardener in charge of the pond.
"They are basically a problem because there is so many of them," Mr. Hernandez said. "We try and discourage it because it is not a native species."
The head of rehabilitation and education at the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, Lorri Kramer, said she has long hoped to end the trouble with turtles in Chinatown by getting them banned from sale, but legislation hasn't made it through the Assembly.
"It's actually very cruel to keep them alive, out of water," she said. "They are dehydrated. Their arms and legs are going to be aching the whole time."