It's a Tortoise's Life

My Labrador retriever has a habit of dragging odd things in from our backyard. Sand-encrusted spatulas, stiff flip-flop sandals, or gnawed plastic baseball bats arrive clamped in the sloppy vise of Kali's mouth. One evening, Kali tossed her latest saucer-sized find into the air, watched it bounce on the kitchen floor, then pounced to launch it again. It took a bounce or two before I realized this newest treasure was not a bone or a bat. Gripping Kali's leather collar, I managed to pry a six-inch turtle from between her clenched teeth.

A turtle? In the great outdoors of my blue-grassed lawn? Drum-tight, the hard shell still protected whatever remains remained inside. Its greenish, chipped surface looked dried-out, marred, and notched by old scars and scratches. Kali sat expectantly at my feet. Her wagging tail whisk-broomed the kitchen floor as she anticipated playing our usual toss-the-toy game with her backyard find.

"Not this time, Kals," I told her, and placed the turtle on the wide windowsill over the kitchen sink. Tomorrow, I could bury it in the field behind the house. Kali looked from me, to the turtle, then back to me. Her happy tail slowed to a stop as she realized there would be no turtle-tossing today. She shifted her body to face the windowsill, flopped down, and began a drooling all-night vigil.

Early the next morning, the clamor of a canine in full battle cry jolted me awake. My pets, Kali and two cats, live in a constant state of warfare. Trying to stay neutral, the Switzerland of pet owners, I stuffed my head under my bed pillow to dull the uproar and gain a few more minutes of sleep.

The kitchen ruckus intensified. Metal pans, left on the counter to dry, clanged together like the klaxon of air-raid sirens. Silverware clink! clank! clinked to the hard tile floor. When I heard the scrabble of toenails on Formica, I roused myself to investigate.

Both cats had retreated under the kitchen table and sat huddled together, watching the dog who had almost scaled the kitchen counter. Kali's mission: to retrieve the not-so-dead turtle crawling across the windowsill at breakneck turtle speed.

I gingerly picked up the intrepid reptile. All four scaly legs paddled the air before finding purchase and settling in my palm. The head retracted until only a bit of beaked nose protruded from the shell. Beady, hooded eyes peered back at me. Since burying Kali's treasure was no longer an option, "Bob" became the newest recruit in my platoon of pets.

Any reptile husbandry skills I possessed were gleaned from nature programs viewed on public television. I remembered heartbreaking scenes of silver-dollar-sized baby turtles scurrying from the shore to the safety of the sea. Turtles must need to be in water, I reasoned. Instead of splashing happily about in the inch or two of water I ran into the bathtub, however, Bob flailed his legs and attempted to scale the slick tub walls. After placing him above the waterline in a clay flowerpot saucer, I positioned a crisp leaf of fresh lettuce in front of his nose. He inspected it, then retracted his entire body into his shell. Obviously, Bob and I had not watched the same nature programs.

Research at the library established him as a Western box Turtle, a meat-and-fruit-eating desert reptile, not an aquatic one. The veterinarian determined that Bob was a healthy male and guessed that he was about five years old when Kali lobbed him into my life. Judging by the condition of his shell, he had been living outdoors for a couple of months. Box turtles love to burrow and dig, which is how he must have arrived in my backyard from the field behind the fence.

FOR a few days, he stayed in my extra bathroom's bathtub (with water in the clay saucer instead of Bob). I commandeered a friend to build a wood-and-chicken-wire cage, which I lined with shredded newspaper and heated with a lamp. The hinged lid protected Bob from the rest of my curious animals. An inverted plastic dishpan, with an opening cut out of the side, gave him a place to hide. He feasted on earthworms, crickets, melon, bananas, and an occasional spoonful of canned cat food - all good rations for the well-kept turtle, according to the reptile book.

My cats liked to lounge on the cage roof, gazing down into the enclosure like furry spectators at a zoo. Kali sometimes snoozed on the sun-shined carpet next to Bob's house. The silent little turtle was a serene counterpoint when my cats and dog fought ... well ... like cats and dogs.

A stout-hearted turtle, Bob was chewed, bounced, tossed, left for dead, hounded, submerged, and starved when he first joined my suburban camp. Yet, he adapted to change, accepted diversity, and welcomed comfort. Perhaps everyone should consider Bob's life whenever we find ourselves clamped in the serendipitous jaws of unforeseen events.

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