GOOSE ISLAND — A chunky, scaly bad boy is stealing the city’s heart.
Chicago — meet Chonk.
The enormous snapping turtle has made national headlines in recent days after Joey Santore and Al Scorch, two longtime friends from La Grange and Portage Park, respectively, shared video of him through their social media and YouTube project, “Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t.”
The duo document natural areas and animals in and around Chicago, humorously narrating their videos with heavy Chicago accents. But their video of Chonk, which they released Sunday, has made big waves — not unlike the turtle himself.
“Look at the size of that thing! Oh my God, it’s a massive turtle,” Santore says in the video, which has racked up more than 68,000 views on YouTube and more than 590,000 views on Twitter.
The duo dubbed the snapper Chonkosaurus, but Chicagoans have quickly shortened that to Chonk.
The video pans to show the enormous snapper sitting in the Chicago River near Division Street in Goose Island as the two friends narrate.
“Look at that beast! Hey, how ya doin’, guy? Ya look good,” one says. The two continue to joke about the snapper’s size, saying, “You look good! I’m real proud of ya. You been eatin’ healthy. … We should take him out to eat.”
The spotting and viral video weren’t planned: Santore and Scorch were simply kayaking and observing invasive plants along a retention wall on a recent warm day.
“We had no intention of necessarily filming,” Santore said. “I just kind of do it on the fly whenever it feels like it’s appropriate or when it could be fun.”
But then they came across the oversized snapping turtle perched on a pile of rusty chains and rotted pylons, Santore said.
The longtime friends were floored by the sight.
“Look at the size of this f—ing thing thing. Holy hell,” they say in the video.
“I think we were both pretty struck by it,” Santore said. “You see something like that and it feels pretty good. You’re thinking about an hour or two afterwards, ‘I can’t believe that thing was there; that’s wild.’”
Santore said he and Scorch continued down the Chicago River around Goose Island. But then they posted the video of the snapper, referring to the creature as “Chonkosaurus” due to its striking size — and the rest is history.
“It was the most Chicago image. It was like this giant, just almost overweight, that looked too [big] for its shell, reptile hanging out on some rusty gnarly chains that were holding together these decrepit pylons that were probably like 80 years old,” Santore said.
“It was like such a Chicago moment, you know? Like, ‘God, that was amazing.’ We were both just kind of laughing about it later on.”
Scorch saw the experience as “this beautiful expression of the natural world and this extremely decrepit decaying urban environment,” he said.
Scorch said snapping turtles have been seen by others who frequent the area, including a nearby kayak rental business and Urban Rivers, an organization working to transform Chicago’s urban waterways into wildlife sanctuaries. Santore said hatchlings have also been seen by people in the area in previous years.
“I think they’re just lurkers,” Scorch said. “They kind of just hide out, and they’re opportunistic feeders, and they just eat whatever comes their way. It’s their M.O. to not be seen, but it was such a nice day and warm out. Being reptiles, they’re gonna get out in the sun.”
“Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t” aims to be a lighthearted approach to education, bringing low-brow humor and blue-collar sensibilities to science in an effort to make it easier for more people to understand and engage with.
The channel was started by Santore, who worked in the railroad industry for 15 years but lost his passion for the work, he said. A self-taught botanist, Santore would read nature and botany books in his spare time, a hobby he saw as a way to regain parts of his life, he said.
At the time, Santore had been living in California, taking himself to local natural areas in spontaneous self-guided field trips, he said. The endeavor eventually led him across the United States and to other parts of the globe, and he began to film and upload footage from the trips, Santore said.
Santored tapped in Scorch — who’s also a musician, video producer and part-time bike mechanic — during the early days of the YouTube Channel as a collaborator.
Santore thinks their laidback and comedic approach is part of what has drawn so many people to their project.
“Comedy has always been an integral part of this,” Santore said. “I think the problem with a lot of science education throughout the last few decades is that it’s so dry, it’s super vanilla. It’s very safe.
“I’m going for people who are a little more rougher on the edges and who can’t sit still in class and were frequently getting into trouble and maybe got expelled from school once or twice, you know? Those are the people that I’m trying to, to get in, get in, get interested in this stuff because it’s so it feels so good to be around nature and to be around plants.”
In addition to the YouTube channel, Santore and Scorch have a cable TV show called “Kill Your Lawn,” in which the duo travel from town to town, help homeowners kill their lawns and work with a landscaper to replace it with plants native to the area.
Newer episodes of the show, which can be viewed on EarthxTV, will be released soon, Scorch said.
Santore thinks people can have the same excitement he and Scorch experience just by getting out into Chicago and learning about the plant and animal life around them, he said.
“The answer, then, is to just start putting that stuff in your yard or in your public parks or wherever,” Santore said. “Convince your municipalities to use native plants, diverse plants and native plants.
“Once you do that, you start watching all this life come back, whether it’s butterflies and cool bird species — or a 60-pound snapping turtle that looks like it’s way too big for its shell, you know?”
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: