I had not seen him go completely inside of his shell for about ten years. Around 1998, when one of my students was taking him outside for some sunshine at recess, she dropped him. It was only from about two feet and it was into the sandy soil that surrounded our portable classroom but he clunked heavily to the ground and when I picked him up he was closed as tight as the box for which he was named. You couldn't even see his eyes. He stayed that way too. About five minutes later he emerged slowly into the sunshine and began to trundle around the playground as if nothing had happened.
So I wondered after his departure the other day if Angelo could still close up tightly into his shell if he needed to. And he would definitely need to. We have lots of box turtles around our house. Every year a couple of them come out of the woods to eat the fallen peaches from a tree in our side yard. At least one of them comes back year after year. I know this because when I go out to visit them and pick them up I recognize the chew marks on the back of one's shell. The teeth marks are rounded now and completely healed up. But some animal, a fox or a raccoon or even a large neighborhood dog (namely Buckley the old English Sheep dog that terrorizes the UPS delivery guy) had found that turtle and gnawed on it trying to get to the prize inside.
That turtle (a beautiful old female with golden brown eyes) hid successfully in its armor until the predator gave up and left it alone. Would Angelo be able to close up the same way to save his own skin? It had been so long since he had closed up that I didn't know if he was even physically able to shut himself up completely. Maybe the muscles it took to pull himself tightly closed had atrophied during his long years in my classroom; his long years in captivity.
So the morning I knew he was gone, I wondered. Whenever I picked him up he usually stuck his long neck out really far, his front and back legs looking as though he were swimming in mid air. When I picked him up he did the opposite of what a wild turtle does. When he was loose in the wild woods would he be able to protect himself in that passive but extremely effective way that box turtles have by literally shutting out the world, just hunkering down and waiting out the danger?
I didn't know if I would ever lay eyes on him again. My son Devin and I looked around for him very carefully the morning he left. Believe me, if Devin couldn't spot him, he was not there. I was resigned to never seeing Angelo again, but I felt pretty good in the knowledge that even short-lived freedom would be worth the time he spent with me in my classroom teaching kids.
I even received a response from an editor of Ranger Rick magazine reaffirming the simple fact that wild animals belong in the wild. Wouldn't you know that Devin did see Angelo within a couple of days. He and Heidi yelled excitedly for me to come outside and make the positive ID. It was Angelo alright. His shell was clean and the bright yellow markings contrasted sharply with his dark brown shell. It was definitely Angelo. No mistaking it. He looked great. A rain shower and a couple days in the woods had restored him.
When Devin handed him over to me, Angelo was almost completely closed up in his shell. His legs were safely tucked inside and I could only see a hint of those sparkling ruby red eyes. When I held him closely and spoke his "name" instead of hanging out loosely and pushing his head forward as I figured he would, he hissed (the only sound box turtles ever make) and closed up his shell completely. I could see nothing of his leathery scaled skin. I was holding Angelo, but I was holding a wild turtle, one who was fearful of this large potential predator.
I carried him down to the center of our property where there is a wash when it rains heavy. I set him down on the clay, he was still completely closed up, maybe loosened up a bit. I walked back several steps and squatted down to watch. With mosquitos buzzing around me I watched my old friend slowly open up his shell, poke his head out and gaze cautiously around. Sensing no danger, he pushed out his front and back legs and walked confidently forward into the leaves until I could no longer see him.
In a very important way this beautiful eastern box turtle was no longer Angelo at all. Maybe he never was. He was just a big beautiful healthy box turtle, back to where he naturally belongs. Back to where he always belonged.