I Like Turtles

My parents have a turtle. Sort of. I guess they probably have lots of turtles tottering about on their land, but one in particular shows up in the yard over and over again.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved animals. I’ve only ever had dogs, cats, and fish as pets, though, and I still wonder if fish really count as pets since they don’t even really react to you most of the time. You definitely can’t cuddle them. Somewhere along the line, my mom told me not to waste the emotional energy crying over something that couldn’t cry over me in return. I don’t remember if it was a lesson about shedding attachment to material things or if she was trying to make me feel better about a fickle friend who had been an ass, but I think my subconscious also applied it to animals as a criterion for good pets.

Cats and dogs would cry over you and are worth crying over. They are definitely good pets. Fish and hermit crabs, though? I can’t see them recognizing that I’m even another organism. Maybe fun to look at, but not exactly what I’d call a “pet.” I had friends with hamsters as a kid, but the hamsters never seemed to live long enough for the kids to make an emotional connection, so I doubt the hamsters made one either. I knew I would never have a hamster anyway because Mom said they were too much like mice and she would not allow a rodent in the house.

Birds definitely form emotional attachments. I’ve seen documentaries about parrots who pluck their own feathers out in distress if they don’t have proper companionship. I’ve never had a bird, but I can understand their appeal if you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Reptiles, though, are a mystery. I’ve always found them fascinating, but again, I’m a big supporter of the cuddly factor of dogs and cats, and I can’t imagine reptiles showing much emotion. When your python hugs you back, he’s not thinking about how much he loves you. He’s thinking about how much he wants to eat you.

And even in casual conversation, we talk about our “lizard brain” when we talk about our lowest, most base instincts, and impulses we think we ought to have evolved beyond. I don’t even know if it’s possible to train reptiles in anyway, regardless of what Dreamworks would have me believe about dragons. Do dragons count as reptiles? I’m inclined to say yes, but maybe their magical qualities place them elsewhere on the taxonomy chart. Terrapins are definitely reptiles, though, so I guess we’d better call my mom Master Splinter, because she seems to have trained a turtle.

She’s not really a pet turtle, just a wild three toed box turtle that lives on my parents’ property. But my mom’s love language is food, and when this little turtle shows up, she runs inside to find some pizza strawberries or a few grapes or a piece of melon, and she puts them on the ground for the turtle.

Have you ever watched a turtle eat? It’s charming. Well, box turtles anyway. Snapping turtles are a different story, but feeding box turtles is one of my favorite summer activities. They’re like tiny dinosaurs zeroing in on their prey (a motionless chunk of juicy watermelon). They stretch their neck way out (intimidate that melon into submission!), open wide and CHOMP! The little beaky mouth rips away 1/8 of a teaspoon, juices streaming down the chin, and swallows it.

Sound on for best effect. The “chomp” noise is 100% natural.

Mom told me that her turtle no longer only gets a little fruit treat when she randomly passes through the yard. She said the turtle comes running (or scuffling as quickly as a turtle can, anyway) when she opens the storm door to refill the bird feeders, often a couple times a week.

I wasn’t sure I believed her until I was home helping Mom and Dad replace their deck. We were working in the backyard tearing off old boards and cutting new ones, and as we paused to deliberate on the best way to fix our latest mistake, the violets at the corner of the deck began to quake and out popped the turtle. She looked around, spotted the three of us about 15 feet away, and proceeded to book it right toward us. Mom went inside and got a couple pieces of watermelon and the turtle was happy.

Turtle devoured two whole chunks of melon, had a poo, ate the third chunk, and scooted off into the woods. I only include the bit about the poo because I’d never seen a turtle poo before, and the best way to deal with something as gross and inevitable as poo is to laugh at it. If you can’t handle a poo joke now and then, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.

We have fed turtles in our yard for a long time now, whenever we found them, and I looked back at the pictures in my phone from the last few years when I started taking pictures and video to share the joy of a feasting turtle with the world. I wish I had had the capability (and, let’s be real, forethought) to take pictures of the past turtles, because when I looked more closely, I discovered that we’ve been feeding this specific turtle for at least four years.

The cover picture I use on both my Quid Facis home page and on my Facebook page is a close up of Pippin sniffing a turtle in my parents’ driveway in June 2018. I compared the markings on the turtle’s face and shell. It’s definitely the same turtle that ran out to us in the backyard. And they don’t have a very large territory, so it’s not likely that the turtle will wander farther away. It makes me wonder how many times we’ve fed her before I thought to make a record of it.

Of course, the realization that we have fed the same turtle for at least four years automatically makes me feel more attached to her. I’m rooting for her. I don’t know how old she is (I mean, obviously older than four), but at least turtles are capable of living a long time, and this one is clearly a survivor. She has a scar on her shell that four years ago looked much fresher than it does now, where it’s still visible but clearly healed. And we’ve had some pretty horrific winter conditions the last few winters, but she must make a good winter burrow to have survived those.

I wondered if I could count the ridges on her shell like rings in a tree to determine her age, but when I compared the footage from this summer to that of four years ago, I got the same number, and even if it wasn’t one ridge per year, surely there would be some noticeable growth in four years. The turtle is certainly full grown though and maybe that means she is no longer adding rings to her shell. I mean, if they live up to 70 years and had significant growth every year, that would be a big turtle. But I’ve never seen a box turtle much bigger than this one. They only get so big.

Kalen and I did see a much bigger turtle one time at the campground at the lake a few years ago. It wasn’t a snapping turtle, those get huge, but I don’t know what this one was. We pulled over the car and stopped to look at it. Another couple about our age came and looked at it too. We all oohed and ahhed over how big this turtle was. It was bigger than a dinner plate. Its shell was maybe 12 or 14 inches in diameter. We four, all in our late 20’s to early 30’s stood for a moment in awe like much younger children.

A park ranger pulled up to see if anything was wrong (gotta keep an eye on those hooligans gathered near the entrance of the campground, you know).

“Look how big this turtle is!” we all exclaimed. “It’s so cool! I’ve never seen one this big!”

The ranger sauntered over, glanced at the turtle, eyeballed all of us like we were rubes, said “It’s just a turtle,” like he has to fight off seventeen of them every morning just to get breakfast. I may never know what kind of turtle it was, but I guess it wasn’t the kind that impresses park rangers.

He probably wouldn’t be impressed with our little box turtle either, but that’s his loss. I’ve had dogs that didn’t come back as regularly as this turtle does, so I think it’s impressive. And even if it wasn’t, it’s still fun to watch the tiny dinosaur chomp away at some fruit. It’s the little things, you know?

2 responses to “I Like Turtles”

  1. I have a friend on the south side of Joplin who owns two lots and has big garden. She sees the same turtle year after year too. I’ve never seen any up in our neighborhood. I really enjoy your witty, conversational style of writing! See you soon. We’ll be home next Wednesday.

    1. Thank you, Brenda! I don’t think I’ve seen turtles in our neighborhood either. Enjoy the rest of your trip! I want to hear all about it when you get back!

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