Friday, July 10, 2009

she’ll outlive us all

When my son was 11, he went to spend a few days with my parents who lived on the edge of a golf course at the time.  He came home with two tiny red ear sliders about the size of a 50¢ piece (remember those?).  He had fished them out of one of the ponds on the course.  One didn’t survive the night, having drowned after getting flipped over and not being able to right itself.  That was 19 years ago.  

The surviving little turtle started out in a 10 gallon aquarium.  It outgrew that and we moved it into a 20 gallon aquarium.  It continued to grow and we put it in a 50 gallon aquarium and it outgrew that one as well.  Finally we got a small child’s wading pool, built a little island in the middle and moved it outside.  The small child’s wading pool became the biggest one we could find and it still continued to grow.  One day, I went to feed it and there on the brick island in the middle of the pond was an egg.  A smushed egg.  So now we knew.  Our turtle was a girl turtle.  

One year, I decided that we would see if we could get baby turtles so I bought a male and put him in the pond with her.  Turtles have this little mating ritual they do, so cute.  He would come up to her, face to face, and pat the sides of her head with his front feet.  What I found so cute, Big Mama tolerated for about 6 months and then one day I noticed he was gone and upon investigating I discovered that he had buried himself in the ground in a sheltered place.  I put him back in the pond and the next day...same thing so I left him there.  The next spring, we cleaned out the pond and the two turtles were in a tub together.  Big Mama nearly decapitated the poor guy so we divided the turtle yard and gave him a small tub of water.  After some research I discovered that male turtles, like males everywhere, want to ‘do it’ all the time and they will pester a single female constantly.  Within 3 months, he had escaped. 

She laid many clutches of eggs but never hatched a baby turtle.

We have had other turtles off and on that people would give us (because, of course, we already had one) but they would always eventually escape.  Big Mama, as she came to be called, has endured.  Not that she didn’t try to escape, especially after we gave her an exit out of the pool and a bit of land to roam around on (and in which to lay hers eggs so they wouldn’t get smushed on the island).  And she has, in fact, escaped many times.  And lately, she’s doing it a lot.  

While we were in NY my phone rang early one morning while I am having coffee.  

“Mom,” my daughter says, “Big Mama is gone and we can’t find her anywhere.”

“Did you look in the ditches?”  I ask.

“Yes”, she says, “she’s not there.”  

“Maybe you didn’t look far enough.  You know, she always heads for the park.”  I tell her.  I’m concerned because Big Mama has lived her whole life in captivity and I’m not sure she will be able to feed herself, not to mention that she has to be in water to eat.  Usually she has settled down by this time of year.  She’s at her most restless during the spring. 

“Remember When Chris found her in the middle of the street in the middle of the block?” I ask.  (Chris is one of the neighborhood kids although he is quite grown now.)

“Oh, here she is” my daughter says, “she’s in Craig’s ditch.”  (The neighbor several doors down.)

This is typical.

Last weekend I got another call.  “Well, Big Mama got out again.  We found her in Jan’s yard.  (Jan lives catty-corner and one down from us.)

I swear that turtle knows when we are leaving town.  She NEVER gets out when we are there.  My son-in-law is the one who usually notices because he checks on her early every morning and morning is always her escape time.   We will, of course, bring her with us when we finally get totally moved.  She’s going to get a larger pond and a bigger yard.  I never expected to still have this turtle nearly 20 years after the day my son brought her home.  Her shell now measures 10 1/2” from front to back.  She’s probably going to outlive us.  I’ll probably have to bequeath her to one of the grandkids.


  1. Argh, what a lovely, adventurous turtle. :)

  2. This post made my morning. Go, Big Mama! I love "did you look in the ditches?" I can see people combing the ditches, looking for a escaped turtle. I also love the little mating ritual.

  3. You must respect these creatures, right? And she's a lucky turtle, too, with you nice people around!

  4. How generous of you to accommodate her all these years! Big Mama's brought a lot of love into your life, most definitely!

  5. How long do turtles live? We have had many pets over the years, but no turtles. We have lots of turtles and frogs here at the campground......snakes,too. I leave them alone as long as they stay out of my gardens. I will move them to a safer area. Well, except for the snakes, then I let the men take over as i assume the role of the helpless female.

  6. Oh, Ellen, I love this story! We came across turtles all the time in Minnesota, and I always made my husband stop so we could move them safely across the roads. One big snapping turtle came through our yard and was headed to our neighbor's pond. He wanted absolutely no help! I love turtles, and I love Big Mama. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Our red eared slider is named Una although she is a male (based on her behavior with a female turtle) Una is among the wise ones in a children's story I wrote a decade ago. She is also the turtle I took with me to college. I got her when I was still a kid and I've had her for eighteen years. A couple years ago she went on a walkabout for several months before returning on her own accord. It was a day of great rejoicing.

  8. Hi Ellen,
    Interesting stories...We have a young fella, Kiki...Thought it was a female when we got it five years ago, but Surprise, Surprise!!! We've tried putting some small fish into Kiki's tank, but found them missing in a few days...I almost saw a smirk on his face and heard a burp!!
    Can we try and get him a mate? We're afraid he'll chew her up too!! Thanx, Dev

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