Recently dog lovers everywhere celebrated National Dog Day on August 26th. My Facebook feed was plastered with photos of my friends’ and family’s dogs. I no longer have a dog in my life, nor do I have cats, chickens, ducks, goldfish, or rabbits, as has been the case in the past. There have been so many beloved furry, feathery, and scaly friends. Some were so easy to love and bond with and were important members of our family. Others were more challenging at times, and then some passed through our lives very quickly. But all left an imprint on our hearts.
Our decision not to have a dog or cat right now is based on many things happening with my husband and me. Pursuing some of our other interests gives us little time to be attentive to a pet’s needs. So, for now, we have no dog to celebrate on National Dog Day. Seeing everyone’s pictures makes me remember what fun and comfort a dog can be, and we miss having that in our life. But we are not a pet-less household. In fact, if there was a National Turtle Day, we would be plastering photos of our dear pet Tootles all over Facebook.
I honestly never wanted a pet reptile, and I didn’t go looking for Tootles. She literally just showed up at our doorstep and seemed to need some help. We own an old fishing cabin along the Illinois River. The house sits on the outskirts of Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge. For the ten years that we’ve owned the property, we have been blessed with countless incredible wildlife sightings. About a year ago this month, we were at the cabin, and Tom and I were picking up sticks and sweeping leaves from our patio and sidewalk. I was just about to put my foot down on something small, bright green, and perfectly round when my inner voice screamed, ‘What the heck is that?’ Closer inspection revealed a very young red-eared slider turtle– perhaps only a day or so old. If I hadn’t been watching where I was walking, I would have crushed it. But, instead, I quickly picked it up and called Tom over to see.
Our cabin sits upon a steep hill overlooking the river. The journey down the slope would be pretty treacherous for a newborn turtle. It would have to pass through woods with fallen logs and rocks or pass through the mown part of the property with concrete steps and eventually a riprap terrace before reaching the beach before the lake. As I held the quarter-sized creature in my hand, I was doubtful it could safely make the journey without toppling over or becoming wedged between rocks. Plus, there are a fair amount of predators on the property that would quickly swoop up such a delectable meal. “There must have been a hatching from a nest around here,” Tom said. And we looked around to see if we could find any more baby turtles. But there were none. Was this one a lone survivor? Or simply the one that didn’t make it to the river? We were unsure of what to do. I thought about walking it down to the beach and letting it make its way to the river, and I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t know what the mortality rate is for newborn turtles. All I could think was that I held a creature that was maybe one day old in my hand, and how could it survive all the treacheries of the world and make it into adulthood.
In a previous blog post, I wrote about the importance of letting nature be what it is and not interfering, except for instance, when raccoons try to move into your garage. But here I am, a hypocrite as I keep a tiny turtle from doing what it needs to do and what little turtles have done since the beginning of their existence. I interfered. My human motherly side could not be reasoned with by my nature-loving let-it-be side. So I put her in a container and hauled her home.
As soon as we got home, I headed to the pet store to purchase all the necessary supplies to set up a home for our new pet, which we named Tootles. Her full name is Tootle Lou Lerczak, in case you were wondering. Next, I began googling information on turtles. Keeping a turtle has taught me much. I learned how to tell if a turtle is male or female, her species, what she would eat, how fast she would grow, that she needs warmth and light, and time to bask. I learned that turtle shells can shed in pieces as the body increases, and turtles can hiss if they don’t want to be picked up. That indoor turtles don’t hibernate in winter months but go through a semi-hibernating state called brumation. I also learned that when Tootles is of reproductive age, she might possibly lay unfertilized eggs and try to bury them in her gravel. Most surprising of all, I learned that in captivity, turtles can live longer than in the natural world, and Tootles could well live to be 20 or 30 years old. If I took excellent care of this turtle, she could outlive me, so, therefore, we had to think about providing for her future in the event of our demise. Anyone with common sense would have released her to the river and wished her well. But common sense has never been my strong suit.
Here we are a year later, on Tootle’s birthday week. She has gone from being the size of a quarter to the size of the palm of my hand, and by no means is she a lazy little lump that sits on a rock all day. In fact, she can be pretty lively. She swims and digs, moving gravel around here and there. She dives off her floating platform, tries to climb up the sides of the aquarium. She occasionally falls backward and can flip herself over. She watches us, and if we come up to her aquarium to visit, she floats toward us, begging for a piece of dried shrimp which she’ll take from our hands. She loves to bask in the light of her heat lamp, splaying her legs, and turning, and fanning her feet in hilarious poses. She is curious about the world around her. Often she stands on her hind legs, craning her out-stretched neck, and blinking her teeny little black eyes.
We refer to Tootles as our daughter, and both agree we can’t imagine life without her. It turns out that we are turtle people, and in this for the long haul, much to our surprise. If we should die or be unable to provide care for her, we plan to have her go live with her sister (my daughter) and her niece (my granddaughter). If she can’t be with them, then a dear friend of ours runs a nature center with a large aquarium with an 18-year-old turtle that may one day be gone or open to a friendship with a lively young gal. One thing is for sure. Wherever Tootles winds up, she’s sure to turn someone’s life around.