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Our Turtle Lives in the Bathtub

A few weeks ago we moved Harriet upstairs to her winter quarters. Her summer accommodations are more spacious. She’s got a lounging area, a larger master suite, an expansive outdoor deck with native plantings and constant running water. But if we left her there for the winter, chances are she’d freeze to death. Which would be a shame given that we have spent nine years keeping Harriet alive and trading up aquariums as she grew from the size of a quarter to her current 9” shell span.

Her summer digs Rich, my live-in partner, dug for her four years ago…. by hand …with a pick axe. To specs provided by a consultant and our landscape designer who assured us that the pond we were creating (kind of a turtle Shangri-La) for our not so tiny red-eared slider would be a perfectly safe year round domicile for her to move to from the tank that had taken over half of our kitchen counter.

Harriet, who liked to eat from our hands and scramble up the ramp of the tank for her feedings (to the delight of visitors) transformed the moment we released her into her pond. No hesitant doleful glances over her shoulder. No, no, no. Our cheerful, indoor boarder never looked back. Harriet took one lumbering, clumsy splash into the deep, black beyond and we rarely saw her again that summer. She who used to creep now swam and dove. She was Esther Williams. Harriet who used to lounge for hours on the water dock in her aquarium, with one leg daintily stretched out behind her and her neck extended upwards toward the heat lamp seldom emerged from the water. Harriet the amphibian became a fish. At the approach of a human, she shot straight to the bottom like a submarine. “Dive, dive, dive, enemy bombers overhead!” If we waited patiently—say 20, 25, 30 minutes or so (sitting quietly without moving and practicing our oneness-with-nature skills), she might slowly resurface to feed from the small plastic sieve filled with turtle pellets—after she tried to snatch the sieve from your hand and compact it between her not so delicate reptilian beak. Think razor sharp pincer pliers clamped shut that maybe an iron crow bar could open. Harriet, our friendly, housebound, crowd pleasing reptile had gone native. Reverted to type. Trusted no one and nothing. Harriet seized her prey, jerked it roughly (think “neck snap”), then tried to drown it for good measure by dragging it underwater. Over time she settled down, but only with me. Rich cast too big a shadow (predator coming!) and didn’t have the patience to sit it out with her. The day she allowed me to pet her around her tiny shoulders and wrinkled neck registered as an unreasonable triumph. The salmonella carrier was allowing me to share her germs and I felt privileged! The queen had granted an audience: I was permitted to intrude upon her royal presence.

Harriet and I had come to an understanding! She would allow me to pet her if I would dangle my finger in the water to set up vibrations letting her know her food had arrived. Slowly, with the languidness of a grouper or swiftly with the aggressiveness of a great white shark (depending on her mood, the amount of sunlight and her appetite) she would emerge to check out the chef’s offering for the day. Was it human pinky finger, worms from the woods (a favorite delicacy), nova scotia salmon (the closest we could come to giving her live goldfish which we had mistakenly done early on in our Harriet stewardship; we thought we were providing a companion and she thought we were offering an h’ors doeuvre), or the predictable and pedestrian turtle pellets?

Life for Harriet was idyllic until the weather turned colder, the leaves began to fall and her owners began to angst. Was the pool actually deep enough for her to brumate? Turtles don’t hibernate. They’re way too cool for that. Their metabolisms slow down in the winter just like some of their mammalian sisters and brothers but they dig in under the wet mud and go into a kind of suspended state of animation for the cold winter months as long as they can stay below the frost line. Too high up and they turn into turtle pops. Call it mother’s intuition or owner’s guilt; we checked again with a different set of consultants and discovered that as magnificent as Harriet’s summer set-up was it would become her permanent tomb if we left her out there for the winter.

It was Lindsay, my older daughter and third child, who came up with the ingenious solution. It’s a good thing too, since it was Lindsay who saddled me with Harriet to begin with in the middle of her junior year of college. She arrived home with Harriet—who was then Huey—one cold winter weekend. Some kids bring home laundry. Others bring their pets. “Mom. He’s SO sick. I have to give him shots every day and I can’t do it. I’m scared he’s gonna die. PLEASE help me take care of him for a little while. The vet says it’s pneumonia.” This might possibly have been related to keeping Huey in an unheated aquarium in a student apartment in Bethlehem, PA in the middle of December. Huey and I bonded during his convalescence. There’s something about sticking a tiny turtle with a very sharp needle every day for 3 weeks and then feeding and soothing him immediately afterwards. He’s either gonna like you or hate you when it’s all over. Upon careful reflection, Lindsay believed that it would be in Huey’s better interests to be in a more stable environment. As Huey grew and graduated from one aquarium to the next and the next and the next and the next, it became apparent that Huey was Harriet. Sexing turtles is not a novice’s game.

Less than enthused with the idea of a 100 gallon tank dominating our kitchen counter, Rich and I were desperate for alternatives as we talked with Lindsay about the challenge of bringing Harriet back inside. “How about giving her away to a good home or nature center?” we proposed with a mixture of ambivalence and relief.

“Oh, Mom, you can’t do that! This is the only home she’s ever known!” It seemed that Harriet, who would as happily chomp down on my finger as on an earth worm, had a patrimonial claim to press. The college boyfriend’s whimsical $1.25 China Town pet store purchase (“Your girlfriend, she die salmonella, you no come back and bother me!”) had become the serious suburban multi thousand dollar investment. I was reminded ofThe Little Prince: “You are responsible forever for what you have named.” And if youaren’t, then Mom certainly is.

“If we put the tank in the basement where there’s room no one will ever visit her and she’ll be lonely,” I observed. “But when she’s in a tank she gets social again.”

“I know! Put her in my old bathtub.”

At first the idea was so bizarre I rejected it out of hand. Who puts a turtle in a bathtub? Bath tubs are for people, the occasional dog and the passing pig (yes, we once had one of those too). Bath tubs are a place for carp before you make gefilte fish if you actually make gefilte fish. Within minutes though, the suggestion made perfect sense. The tub was big enough and deep enough. We could raise and lower the water when we needed to. Electrical power was close enough to supply the filter and the heat lamp. AND we could drain it by flipping a lever! You can’t do THAT with a tank. Oh, bliss! The bathroom wasn’t quite in the midst of daily traffic patterns but we wouldn’t be able to go through the day without passing the room.

So Harriet winters in the bathtub. It’s not exactly the Riviera but it beats being buried in the slimey ooze below the frost line. If I were a turtle and I had a choice I think I know which one I’d go for. She gets pellets, freeze dried shrimp, nova scotia, an occasional pass at my finger, an extra large new floating dock where she spends most of her day time hours, striking poses and basking in the glow of the heat lamp. We transfer some water lettuce from the pond to provide her with the cover she craves. We don’t think we should use the fake plastic plants we put in the first winter. It seems that turtles, like goats, will eat anything. I was still plucking tiny green plastic offerings from the outside pond the following August.

Harriet’s now back for her third winter season at what we call Palm Beach. I look forward to our morning visits. We have our special time together. I use a hand net to skim clean the tub. She swims up to see what delicacies are on the daily menu and to get a scratch around the neck or on her legs. I like to think we are communing. In those few moments of quiet we are celebrating US and the fact that we meet a need for each other. I feed her and keep her tank tidy. She gives me a few moments of utter calm and concentration. All day long I am assaulted with messages and demands, electronic alerts and human requests, the complicated responsibilities of relationships and obligations. In these few moments everything else flies out of my head. It’s all about the simplicity of Harriet. “Enjoy me. Feed me. Pet me. Keep me clean.”

There’s just one hitch. We understand that turtles live for a really really long time. This means two things. 1) Harriet has retired and gone south before us. 2) Someone (are you reading this, Lindsay? ) is going to have take care of Harriet if she outlives us. She has, after all, become accustomed to a very high standard of care. Summers in Shangri La, winters in Palm Beach.


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