Box Turtle Blues

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Bruce is a rescued adult box turtle.

This makes him the most unique “pet” I’ve ever cared for….starting with the fact that he is in no way, shape or form an actual pet.

He just isn’t. He is truly a wild creature.

A bit of back story: Bruce’s path crossed with mine a year and a half ago when Malti, my young red-footed tortoise, suddenly went missing one afternoon. One minute she was right there on the grass in front of me and the next minute she was gone.

About 60 minutes after that (once my mom came over and got me to stop hyperventilating), the whole neighborhood knew about her disappearance.

I live in a very animal-friendly neighborhood and those around me were eager to help.

Even though I posted large color photographs of Malti and – to my eyes at least – the two turtles don’t look anything alike, I kept getting calls about Bruce. A nice person would call and, with great excitement in their voice, announce, “I think I’ve found your missing turtle!”

My mom and I would get all excited, and then Bruce would be rescued to us.

Malti (top), Bruce (bottom). Personally, I don’t think they look anything alike, but they do share some common characteristics, like dots on their feet and an approximate size.

This happened twice during the six days Malti was missing. The second time it happened, I didn’t know that I would find Malti just hours later that same day.

But, after the horror of hearing where the second set of rescuers had found Bruce (trying to cross one of the busiest roads in our neighborhood), I told them I would take him in and foster him until a suitable arrangement could be made. So when Malti returned home at last, our little flock had expanded.

That was on May 15, 2016. So Bruce has been with us now for more than a year now, and it’s been quite a wild ride for all of us.

Honestly, I have no idea what to expect from day to day. Not only is Bruce not socialized to my presence the way all of my other pets down through the years (both parrots and turtles) have been, but nearly everything about him remains an enigma.

For instance, lately he has been hibernating, or aestivating, which I’m told is a heat-related version of winter hibernation. He crawls deep down under his leaf litter and burrows in the dirt. He does this for days at a time.

Periodically, I dig him out to a) check on a spot on his shell that is injured, b) hydrate him, c) offer food, d) check he is still alive.

I feel very guilty when I do this, but I’m really worried! What the heck is Bruce doing hibernating in the middle of summer? Is he bored? Depressed? Exhausted? Dying?

When I offer food, he eats like a horse. But then he goes right back under the leaf litter again and goes back to sleep.

So yesterday I decided to let him interact with Malti in their shared outdoor play area to see if this would provoke any of the animation I got used to seeing last year during the warm weather season.

[While previously our vet had advised no contact between them, on account of how Bruce wants to make an egg really badly and Malti is both the wrong species and too young, I thought it was potentially worth the risk just to see if the meeting with another turtle would perk Bruce up.]

Boy did it. He perked up RIGHT away. His eyes whirled a deep, fiery red that I usually only see when he’s really hungry and I offer him a large wriggling mealworm, but it was even more intense than that.

It was like every cell in his body suddenly honed in on just one thing: her.

Bruce spies Malti and those intense red eyes start whirling…..

He immediately started his pursuit, walking quickly at her heels and doing an occasional “sniff test” (I could be wrong, but I assumed this is so he can scent her to see if she is female – sort of like what dogs do).

When she would turn around, he would change from charging conquerer into cowering slave, pulling into his shell and pretending he didn’t know she was there.

Bruce gets bolder as he follows Malti in their shared outdoor play area.

But the moment she would walk away again, the pursuit was back on.

Finally, she turned abruptly to face him. She put her nose very close to his. I was almost about to say, “awwwww….!” when she opened her mouth and tried to BITE him on the nose!

That moment when….you think she likes you and then she tries to BITE you!

So that was the end of that. I separated them immediately and Bruce actually lingered near me, which he hasn’t done in some time.

Bruce, cowering near my feet, post-near-bite.

Then I put him back in his enclosed habitat and he immediately crawled back under his leaf litter again.

Sigh.

Anyway, I guess that means the experiment worked. He definitely got very active when he saw her. But it clearly isn’t safe to put them together, especially now that she is much bigger and stronger – we think he is at his full adult size and weight, while she may grow another 8 to 10 inches and already outweighs him by double and then some.

I just wish I could find something, anything, to help him come alive like that. I can’t breed box turtles, so getting him a girlfriend is out. Rehoming him is a possibility if the right situation comes along and our vet agrees. He will likely go into hibernation around November, so I don’t foresee making any changes until spring of 2018.

But I just respect Bruce’s wildness so much. I don’t expect him to be my “pet,” but I also don’t have any experience with rescued wild animals who are threatened in the wild to the point where a release is likely to only ensure another capture by a well-meaning turtle lover who thinks he’s really “cute.”

Box turtles are especially vulnerable to this because they have a charismatic way of staring at you that seems confident. But it is really their way of trying to freeze in place and stare you down so you will leave right away. People mistake this for friendliness and ooh and aah and move in for the big “rescue.”

This is likely how Bruce got separated from his birthplace in the first place, and also likely why he was wandering in some really dangerous places when he was rescued to me twice during that week last year. He was looking for home, and if released, he will continue looking for home to the exclusion of all else, including mating, eating and resting.

It is a real conundrum….what to do….how to provide enrichment of the right kind, at the right moment, in the right way to be a benefit to Bruce in his unusual situation.

I honestly am not sure what to do.

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Published by Shannon Cutts

Cockatiel, redfoot tortoise & box turtle mama. Pet & people blogger.

2 thoughts on “Box Turtle Blues

  1. “For instance, lately he has been hibernating, or aestivating, which I’m told is a heat-related version of winter hibernation. He crawls deep down under his leaf litter and burrows in the dirt. He does this for days at a time.”

    Sounds like me in summer. I have no tolerance for temps over 70 and with respiratory problems I can’t handle humidity. So I hibernate in the summer. Only with me it isn’t leaf litter and dirt, it’s food, books, birds, and junk TV!

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