But She Is “Just” a Turtle

originally published on Malti & Me on May 30, 2016

Oh boy.

Let me tell you what.

Being a turtle mommy, for me at least, has been like winning free tickets to the “learning curve rollercoaster” – that really fast, scary one I never wanted to ride in the first place.

If you’ve been following Malti’s adventures here and on social media, you probably remember that she recently went missing for 6 days.

Those were pretty much the 6 longest days of our life together to date.

Malti sitting securely in her mommy’s lap immediately post-rescue.

In our personal network, no one seemed surprised that I would ditch work, socializing and pretty much everything else for 6 consecutive days to search for my baby turtle.

(This, of course, is because our flock has the coolest network ever.)

But outside our network, and sometimes outside (literally) as I was searching, I would get “those looks.”

Like, “Why are you on your belly on the ground looking under my car with a flashlight?”

Well, um, “My baby turtle is lost and I’m searching for her.”

Oooohkaaaay. “Your baby – what?”

“Turtle.”

“Well, uh, good luck with that….”

Yup.

More recently, this same issue cropped up with Bruce, the 3-toed box turtle who was rescued to me twice while Malti was missing. 

Don’t get me wrong – some of the people who questioned my judgment in taking him in have really good reason….me included.

For starters, turtles are expensive…or at least Malti is expensive, which is really the only example I have to go on.

As well, turtles have exacting care requirements, and I haven’t always done so well with those.

Also, box turtles as a species tend to have a need to hibernate annually, which makes me even more nervous.

Plus (not to overstate the obvious, but) I already have a turtle.

(By the way, for those of you who aren’t keen on suspense, Bruce is staying – he has a home here with our little interspecies flock for as long as he wants or needs it.)

It took me a couple of weeks, two trips to the vet, two consultations with the animal communicator who helped me find Malti, many sleepless nights and prayers and a fair amount of hard-earned cash to make a decision about Bruce.

Bruce, en route with me to the vet….he scaled the inside of his soft cloth temporary carrier in short order and rode like this for most of our short car trip!

In other words, to me he has never been, isn’t now, will never be “just a turtle.”

By that I mean, there were many folks encouraging me to just turn him loose in the nearest – wherever – because, after all, he is “just a turtle.”

Except that he isn’t.

Even our vet, who has certainly seen her share of box turtles, says she feels he is a very special box turtle. He is intelligent, curious, fun, eager for human company and sociable.

From the second time we met (on Day 6 and final of my search for Malti) until today, he has never once closed up completely when in my company (box turtles are unique in that they have incredibly strong hinging shell muscles that can enclose their body, including limbs and head, completely within their upper and lower shell for protection).

What I’m trying to say is, Bruce blows me away. I have met (many) people who make for far less interesting and engaging company.

He is not “just a turtle,” any more than I am “just a homo sapiens.”

I would no sooner “set him free” (aka abandon him) in some meadow or field than I would a rescued puppy or kitten – this is the kind of behavior that gets far too many turtles and tortoises killed each year.

An example: box turtles also have a unique homing instinct – no other turtles or tortoises that I am aware of have this same drive to stay near the place they were born for their whole lives. There are incredibly sad stories of “freed” box turtles who have died wandering endlessly as they tried to get back to their home turf.

I don’t like to think about this much….at all.

I’m not advocating to turn all wandering wild animals into pets, mind you. What I do feel strongly about is never ever classifying any found or rescued being of any species as “just a….” as a reason to turn them loose without, a) doing the necessary depth of research to find out what is truly best for them, b) consulting the animal him/herself if at all possible to find out their wishes, c) taking the same care with any animal we choose to rescue as we would hope someone else would with our own cherished loved ones, human and non-human, were they to go missing.

I’ll share a story…..

The first time Bruce was rescued to me, the homeowner in whose yard he had apparently been hibernating (into which he had been placed by the homeowner’s grandson, who apparently has had a little “turtle collecting habit” going on) identified him as a turtle she had seen before.

She then held him out to me and asked, “Do you want him?”

He was totally enclosed within his shell, so I couldn’t see his face. I cupped his small, round turtle body in between both of my palms as my mind struggled to decode her question.

Do. I. Want. Him.

Huh?

The trouble, I realized later, lay with the issue of ownership. What I mean is, he wasn’t hers to give, to me or anybody.

But, not finding the words in those particular moments to express this sentiment with any real clarity, I simply said “no” and continued on with my search for Malti.

When Bruce was rescued to me the second time – by a young compassionate couple who saw him trying to cross an insanely busy street not far from that same house – he was out of his shell. I took one look into those eyes and felt a “click.”

Bruce, sitting under my file cabinet, where he lived for 3 days (he refused to live in the temporary habitat I put together for him) until I could make a decision about what would be best for him.

Yet I didn’t take it lightly when I told the couple that no, I had not yet found my missing turtle (Malti) but that I would foster this one until something suitable could be worked out for him.

But it scared me to make such a big commitment. I realized that, as Antoine de Saint -Exupéry (“The Little Price”) stated,

You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

Yeep!

In some conversations I’ve had with well-meaning folks on similar subjects, they hearken back to the “good ol’ days” when the animal members of the family lived outside and no one went to the vet for anything other than a compassionate euthanasia.

But to my mind, the reason that that was then and this is now is because there are far fewer of them around now to save.

Many turtles and tortoises are critically endangered (the 3-toed box turtle is on the endangered list as well, although not at the critical stage as of yet).

Amidst headline-making efforts to save a few lucky souls here and there, whole species continue daily to inch towards extinction, in part because of, I am convinced, the mindset that they are “just turtles.”

So I will add my own voice – our voices – to those who endeavor to correct this misbelief:

No. they. are. not.

Not “just turtles.” Malti (top), Bruce (bottom).

Here is what is true about turtles and tortoises:

I say all this on behalf of turtles and tortoises everywhere, but also because if either of my shelled loved ones ever goes missing again, I want their rescuers to have experienced – to know and feel in every fiber of their being – that this is not “just a turtle” they are holding in their hands.

This is someone’s loved one.

This is the legacy of a planet.

This is a hope for our seas and lands.

This is a being – conscious, alive, thinking, feeling, connected to them and me and all that is.

That will continue to be my hope, my wish, and my experience.

May 21, 2016: ‘Nuff said.
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