This will be a weird post. I don’t know, maybe you think lots of them are weird. On the face of it, this may seem like no big deal, but I lost my pet turtle. His name is Angelo (not that he probably even knows his name). I had him with me in my classroom for since 1983. By lost, I don’t mean he died. He is loose in the woods. To me, he’s lost. But to him, he may finally be found; he may finally be home.
He came to me in my old dog’s jaws. He was just a hatchling, and Tawny, a big buff colored cocker spaniel, came to the back door of our house in southern Indiana with this tiny little box turtle in his mouth. The turtle’s shell was a little crushed in from the chewing he got from Tawny. I was sad. The little hatchling was surely a goner.
I called the vet at the bottom of the hill in Bean Blossom, Indiana, where we lived at the time. He was a farm vet and admittedly knew next to nothing about turtles. If I’d wait on the line, he’d look up what he could in one of his old textbooks. It turned out that a lot of people had them as pets but he knew very little about what they ate. He knew only that they were omnivores. He dusted his broken shell with some kind of antibiotic and said that was all he could think to do. It turns out that was all it took. The vet didn’t even charge me.
I didn’t want to let the little turtle loose in the condition he was in. He was so tiny that he couldn’t even tuck himself into his shell all the way. So I kept him in a bowl in our sunroom. And when it got cold, in our office. I fed him canned corn and bait worms. The worms were much bigger than he was so I had to cut them into tiny pieces. After a couple days he began eating hungrily. It was pretty neat. I thought I had done a good deed and I became really fond of the little guy.
The next fall he had a place in my second grade classroom at Lynwood Elementary in Decatur Township Schools. While he was only a little bigger than a 50 cent piece, he was eating, enjoying sunshine in our large window and growing like crazy. For two years he was part of the class.
Once he was kidnapped from our room. Truly. We came back from lunch one day and he was gone. The class was so upset that we put up wanted posters around the school and offered a dollar reward for his safe return. A child came to my room before school one morning and said that his brother, a second grader from another classroom, had taken the turtle; had in fact, put him in his pocket and had him at home in a jar of water. I thanked him, gave him the dollar, and went straight to that boy’s class. I told him that if he brought the turtle back to school the next day, and that if he was safe and sound, I wouldn’t call the sheriff and report him for larceny. That’s just what he did. Angelo came back looking very stuffed and bloated from having spent so much time immersed in water. Again, I called my farm vet friend and he said to just leave him out of the water for a while and, more than likely, he would be okay. He was.
As Angelo grew, the size of his enclosure needed to grow as well. When I moved to South Carolina in 1986, he was with me in a 3 gallon fish bowl. His water bowl was the size of a shallow tea cup. My first graders wrote about him and drew pictures of him in our first class science journal. They would say things like, “Angelo is looking right at me,” or “Angelo turned the worm over before he ate it.” They were really fond of him. They would come to the classroom years later as they grew up to see Angelo and remark about how big he was getting.
I was at that school for 5 years and every year Angelo would come to school with me in the fall and return with me in the summer. He was as much a part of my classroom as the tables and chairs. As I grew and changed as a teacher, Angelo was quietly sitting in my room, munching on celery, eating worms, marching around his aquarium.
I switched districts in 1991. I went back to teaching second grade at Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary. During the five years I spent at Nelson, Angelo helped me to teach science. Of course I had other classroom pets during this time. Various short-lived fish came and went. We had a pair of mice for a short while. When I bought them, I told the pet store guy that I wanted two males or two females but that I definitely did not want any baby mice! It didn’t take long to figure out that they were male and female. Back to the pet store they went. We had various gerbils, hamsters, even a ball python for a year or so that belonged to one of the kids. Angelo was a constant. We switched him to a 10 gallon tank with a multispectrum reptile light. Bought him Reptomin turtle food and night crawlers. Every once in a while I would find a wild box turtle and bring it in for a day and then take it home and release it where I found it. We would compare Angelo with its wild relative. Angelo never went in his shell. He was so completely adapted to his life in the classroom, his life with humans.
Angelo taught kids to love turtles and, I think, wildlife in general. We discussed what you should do if you ever see a turtle in the road. We called them “Turtle Rescues” and many children over the years saved countless turtles from being roadkill because they knew and cared for a special turtle, Angelo.
In 1996 we opened The Center For Inquiry where Angelo was upgraded to a 30 gallon tank, with a huge light and a water container that was the cut off bottom of a large bucket. I had a heated area for him to rest when he was chilled. My second and third graders wrote funny songs about him. “Angelo’s Reptile Rock” was a favorite of my class for a few years. This year when several children did their expert projects on turtles (thanks in no small part to being in love with Angelo) we wrote a really good informational song called “We Love Turtles”.
Still, I felt guilty over the years about keeping him. I ALWAYS counseled children to release wild animals, that if they were safe it was okay to examine them, learn from them and then to release them. When preying mantis or lady bugs or even wood roaches or rolly pollies would come in I would demand their release at the end of the day.
I rationalized about Angelo by saying that he was so imprinted, so unnaturalized that if I let him loose into the wild he would be easy prey for any predator that came his way. I kept him in the first place because he was wounded and wouldn’t release him because of his helplessness because of my keeping him. There was this mobious strip of logic that I used year after year, justifying my keeping him in captivity. Yet, every summer when it was time to close up the classroom I felt guilty. Sometimes I would let him go home with well meaning students and parents who tried to feed him up, keep his aquarium clean and change his water daily. Often I would get him back in the fall all dusty, colorless and light in weight. Healthy turtles are never light.
So this year I decided to bring him home and to build him an outdoor enclosure. A big one. We stopped at the hardware store yesterday and considered lots of alternatives. We settled on large masonry bricks, 12 inches on their sides. I raked out a large area in our woods, lay down chicken wire around the edges, tapped in the bricks, placed rocks on the wire, filled in with dirt and leaves, dug out a spot in the middle for his watering hole and considered us all very lucky. This was going to be the summer of his life, as near to natural as we could get for him. I had collected several beetles, centipedes and earthworms just from raking up the leaves for his area. Yum. He seemed curious and active when I put him in last evening. Mosquitoes hovering, the light dimming, Heidi and I headed out for our evening walk.
When I checked on him this morning, he was gone. The dirt in one corner was a little high, the brick there tapped in a little too far. I suspect he simply kept trying and trying to climb over until he got out. You know, it made me sad to realize that I won’t ever see those bright, inquisitive, red eyes again. It made me sad to know that he won’t ever be a part of a young kid’s natural education. You can read about box turtles in books or in Ranger Rick magazine but until you’ve held one and it looks you in the eye, you never really know a box turtle. He’s been a part of my classroom for 26 years. 26 years of kids growing to love turtles. 26 years I have fed him, nurtured him, changed his water, changed his soil, cleaned out his poop. 26 years of watching that beautiful animal grow from a little broken-shelled squirt to a beautiful, healthy, full grown eastern box. How can one miss a reptile? I will.
There was a part of me that went, “Good for you, old guy. You made it." It might be that he will be easy pickings for the next fox or raccoon. It could be that he wanders out into the road and gets hit by a car, although we live pretty far out in the country so that’s not all that likely. But maybe he’ll live through the rest of the season. Maybe he’ll come across a female and they’ll have a clutch of eggs. Maybe, before his time comes, even if it’s short, he’ll experience the kind of freedom that will have made all of these years in captivity worthwhile. So, good for you, old guy.