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A Writer Reflects on Keeping a Turtle 

click to enlarge Carrie Askren and Pedro - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Carrie Askren and Pedro

I take an early-morning visit to my irises and tomato plants, with a Popsicle stick for scooping and a washed-out peanut-butter jar, and return with my catch — a slimy mass of slugs. They will be breakfast for my turtle, Pedro.

I bring the jar into my living room, where Pedro resides in a 55-gallon aquarium. As soon as he spots me, he begins paddling vigorously, his body nearly vertical, head extended out of the water. His beady eyes — which look somehow exotically attractive set against his yellow-and-brown head markings — watch me intently. I open the jar and, using the stick, push two unsuspecting slugs off the underside of the lid and into Pedro’s tank.

“One, two, slugs for you,” I sing, as he dives to snatch the sinking morsels. Down the hatch!

“Three, four,” I continue, “here come some more.” I shove another half dozen of the writhing garden pests out of the jar and into the water. Pedro gobbles them all within seconds.

I twist the lid back on the jar and put it in the fridge. Leftovers for a snack later.

Pedro is a peninsula cooter fresh-water turtle (Pseudemys peninsularis). His yellow-and-brown geometrics are less colorful than those of the popular red-eared sliders that most pet stores sell. But, according to Philippe de Vosjoli’s guide The General Care and Maintenance of Red-Eared Sliders and Other Popular Freshwater Turtles, Pedro has about the same physical attributes and living requirements as other water turtles do. Full grown, he stretches almost a foot long from head to tail tip, and he has a huge appetite.

While some may keep cooters as pets, other people have an appetite for them. As the number of online recipes indicates, turtle meat is popular fried and in soup. And that’s how I came to adopt Pedro. Not for making soup — I saved him from that fate. You might call him a rescue turtle.

Already fully grown in 1997, Pedro got lucky. He was among a truckload of illegal turtles that police intercepted en route from Mexico to a Boston restaurant. The displaced exotic aquatics were farmed out to science teachers throughout New England. I was teaching fifth-grade science back then, and voilà!

But the school’s principal — whom I suspect in retrospect of being chelonaphobic — decided that he didn’t want a large turtle in my classroom after the day he heard me scream. That was the day the students begged me to let Pedro run loose in the room during our silent-reading period. He enjoys wandering about on land occasionally and is surprisingly quick on his stubby legs. To contain him, we closed the classroom door.

Everything was fine until one little girl hopped up to go to the pencil sharpener. She trekked down the aisle between the desks, oblivious to Pedro wandering into her path. I screamed, “Look out!” and she stepped back just in time to avoid squashing him. The unsympathetic administrator insisted I take my turtles home.

Yes, turtles. Along with Pedro, I had adopted Speedy. Our first summer together, I put both turtles in a kiddie pool in my backyard to bask in real sunlight and heat, rather than the UVB ultraviolet light and bulb-generated heat above their tank. Unfortunately, a neighborhood dog carried Speedy away before I could cover the pool with chicken wire. The next day, I found his waxy, yellow-and-green-mottled undershell in my front yard.

So Pedro spends his days inside his tank, or in the bathtub when I change out the tank water, as I must do a few times a year. (It’s a more frequent requirement for the less hardy pet-store turtles.) Pedro’s tank water must be chlorine free. Well water is good, but city water has to sit in an open container overnight before it can be added to the tank. Pedro’s tank water is climate controlled with a submerged tank heater set above 68 degrees. The ultraviolet light hangs over the length of the tank, and a heat lamp shines on his basking platform. These enable him to produce vitamin D and keep his body temperature high enough to digest his food.

Controlling algae growth in the aquarium is the job of my algae-eating plecostomus tropical fish, Felix One, whom I also acquired in 1997. He’s about six inches long and resembles a miniature prehistoric catfish. Felix One used to have a partner, Felix Two, who met the unfortunate fate of death by snowbank — the custodians at my school accidentally threw him out with his tank water.

Cleaning and refilling the aquarium is the most labor-intensive aspect of caring for Pedro; other than that, he is the easiest pet I’ve ever had. And he’s more social than most people might imagine. He greets me every morning by paddling and splashing. Like my Catahoula leopard dog, Pedro begs and accepts many scraps thrown his way.

According to de Vosjoli, turtles thrive on a varied, omnivorous diet of veggies, fruits, bugs and meat bits, as well as commercial floating fish pellets. Pedro’s slugs come from a yard that has never known pesticides or herbicides. He also enjoys strawberries and romaine lettuce cores. I limit Pedro’s feedings, though; experts caution that obesity in turtles, as in humans, is a health concern. How can you tell if a turtle is fat? By checking for bulging around the groin or armpit areas.

As I watch Pedro and Felix One now, the turtle is serenely gliding along the bottom of the tank, over slate and granite rocks where the fish is sucking on algae. Pedro looks and behaves the same today as he did 16 years ago. I have read that, with proper care, turtles have a lifespan of up to 50 years.

I am 59. I may have to write Pedro into my will.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Shell Game"

Turtle Care

If you’re thinking of adopting a large aquatic turtle, be ready to make a long-term commitment. Author and reptile expert Philippe de Vosjoli lists these basic requirements for keeping water turtles in captivity:

An enclosure large enough to hold an appropriate amount of water for the size of your turtle Clean, chemical-free water An area where turtles can emerge from the water, dry out and bask A constant heat source The right type and amount of food Regular monitoring and maintenance of the animal’s health and the tank conditions

Most of what I know about keeping turtles I have learned by asking the staff at my favorite pet store, talking with veterinarians, and reading aquatic-turtle care books and online articles. One warning they all have in common: Never set a tropical aquatic turtle free. They cannot survive in Vermont’s climate. If you can’t keep your turtle pet, contact your local animal shelter or veterinarian to find it a new home.

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Carrie Askren

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