Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Good-Bye My Turtle Girl

It started as just a joke, when my daughter asked me for a small aquatic turtle at the pet shop. I had to blink twice, to make sure I was reading the 79.99 price tag correctly, and then I replied, "If you want a turtle, I'll catch you one from the lake, and not one of these puny ones, a good sized one."

So when we decided to go canoeing at Burnaby Lake in late June, my daughter reminded me of my "promise". So I tossed a plastic tub into the canoe, just in case. Sure enough, within minutes of putting the canoe in the lake, we saw a turtle sunning itself on a log, and the chase was on. We hadn't thought to bring a net, so I ended up catching it with my bare hands. It was a pretty exhilirating experience.

I had told myself that if it was a native turtle, we'd return it, and if not (i.e. a pet shop turtle released into the lake) then we'd keep it. So after catching it, we checked at the pet shop (while trying to buy a suitable aquarium for it; we ended up getting a perfectly sized one for $40 on Craigslist), and it was one of the 3 varieties of turtle they sold. But when I checked online, I found that it was a Western Painted Turtle, which is also native to this area. So as a compromise, I guess, we decided to keep it only for the summer, until the kids return to school.
Painted turtle in the garden
I read that the female has a narrower tail than the male, but having no other turtle to compare it with, I only guessed that this was a female. Nice smooth dark shell, maybe 10" across. Gorgeous red & black pattern underneath (I should have taken more photos), and beautiful yellow markings on her skin. We couldn't agree on a name for her, so she just became my "Turtle Girl".
Turtle sunning on rock
I took her outside some times, let her run in the yard. I discovered that turtles can really move when they want to! Wow! She was a little speedster. But most of the time, we kept her in the tank, with just enough water in the bottom for her to swim, and two large rocks for her to climb onto, to "sun" herself (I tried to click on the recessed light above the tank whenever she did this). She seemed to like the clump of grass I added to the tank, and was often "hiding" near it.
Turtle tank
The tank was in an alcove at the landing of our main staircase. So over time she got used to us passing by, and only panicked when we stopped. Lately, she had stopped panicking at all, and only backed away when we approached. But still, we could never think of her as a pet, only a captive. When I picked her up, she hissed and tried to claw herself out of my grip. I learned two tricks to holding her. One was holding her from the back, close to her tail, so she could only push my hand with her back feet, but not dig her claws into me. The other one (I think she was not amused!!) was to hold her completely upside down, holding the edge of her shell, so she couldn't dig any of her claws or feet into me at all. I wish I had a picture of that. She looked so undignified, but she also got very calm when I did that (maybe the blood rushing to her head had something to do with it).

I don't know if she ever ate or not. We bought her the floating pellets for turtles (a combination of vegetation and protein), and I tried tossing in bits of romaine lettuce and dandelion greens, but couldn't tell if she ever ate any of them, or whether they all just ended up in time jammed in the intake of the filter. Apparently turtles can go for weeks and even months without eating. And when they hibernate buried under the mud in winter (I guess in Vancouver they may or may not actually hibernate), they can go for many months without breathing. Pretty amazing.

Well, in two weeks the kids are back in school. We survived a spell of very hot weather (a few times we found her with her head pulled back into her shell, and I felt sorry for her that she didn't even have any cool water to retreat into), and now the weather has cooled, and the kids are at camp near Burnaby Lake this week. So it seemed the ideal time to set her free.

Today was an extremely stressful day at work, but I had decided this was the day, so I put her into a plastic tub and took her with me when I went to pick up the kids. I have to say I cried the whole 10 minutes I drove to camp, and I already missed her terribly. I'm sure tonight will be awfully quiet, without her clunking around at 5AM, knocking the filter (which is suction-cupped to the side of the tank) out of the water so that it starts sucking air....

I'm already trying to decide if we want to put a few fish into the tank, or just remove it altogether. We saw some 99 cent goldfish at the garden center the other day, which seems pretty tempting. But then again, maybe our hamster and two sea snails might be enough for now.

My daughter helped me release her into a shallow pool at the edge of the lake. Instead of heading out into the lake, our Turtle Girl quickly headed straight into the tall grasses at the other side. We could hear her for some while, pushing her way through, the grasses wiggling to indicate her progress. When we turned for home, I felt relieved that she was back home where she belonged, but I'll surely miss our Turtle Girl.


kompoStella said...

that was sweet story, thanks for sharing. i'll wish Turtle Girl good luck back out there...

O.I.M said...

I think you did the right thing by sticking to your plan and returning Turtle Girl to the wild. I'm sure she's doing just fine out there. And as much as you miss her, you'll always have the wonderful memories and a great story to tell.

Garden Lily said...

Thank you both for your comments. It has been a relief knowing that she's back "home" again in the lake, and will have time to settle in again before winter arrives.

Lucy Corrander said...


I went to your plot on Blotanical to leave a message and realised you don't go there much . . . so I decided to leave a copy here too. Hope that's ok.

This is is

'This is an unashamed advert for my blog PICTURES JUST PICTURES (which tends not to get noticed because my other blog is listed first!). It's a photo a day (without words) - mainly but not exclusively of the landscape. I thought I'd let you know, hoping you like it! Lucy'

By the way, I hope you don't loose track of your turtle completely.


Powell River Books said...

I know what you mean about fast. My turtle when he was younger had a habit of climbing out of his bowl when I put it in the back yard. One day I just caught a glimpse of him heading out under the gate. By the time I got there I saw him go off the edge of the curb and into the street. Good thing I passed by when I did! - Margy

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