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THE MAJESTIC TURTLE
— Turtle Tales —
Everybody I encounter seems to have a turtle connection—from the stories of celebrity turtle fanciers (ex-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the musician Slash, CNN founder Ted Turner, comedian Sandra Bernhard, artist Julian Schnabel—the list is long and varied) to the experiences of Everyman. But the bond tying humans and turtles through history (and prehistory) is severely threatened because the turtle is in jeopardy.
“Everybody has a turtle story,” I suggest over a casual drink with my friends Jim and Margaret. We are sitting on their deck overlooking Bodega Bay on the Sonoma County coast in California. It is an opening line I’ve been using since my turtle research started, and it never fails. At first Jim looked skeptical. “Everybody has a turtle story,” I insist. “You have a turtle story.”
He thinks for just a moment and then agrees. There was the little box turtle Jim kept in the backyard. They lost track of each other and Jim gave up looking. Five years later he was cleaning debris off the family swimming pool and, yes, there was the box turtle—and no longer so little. Jim fished the turtle out of the pool, and it promptly disappeared again and was never found.
Margaret’s turtle story stars her grandmother at the age of six or seven. She was down in the basement where the pet snapping turtle lived, and she must have been poking at it, because, according to family lore, the turtle grabbed her finger. Grannie screamed and screamed while trying to whip the turtle off her as it windmilled on her finger. Finally she succeeded at flinging it away. Back upstairs she asked why no one came to her aid. She was, after all, screaming.
“We thought you were singing,” was the response.
Margaret’s and Jim’s turtle stories are kid stuff compared with the image my question conjured in Andrew DeVigal’s memory.
“What’s your turtle story?” I ask.
“I don’t have a turtle story,” he protests.
But I insist. “Everyone has a turtle story.”
Now a colleague of mine at the University of Oregon, former New York Times journalist DeVigal thinks a minute more and then remembers that when he, his wife, and his children were on vacation in Southern California and the family was strolling along Venice Beach, “I saw a turtle walking alone with a hat on its back and it made me think about that powerful Breaking Bad scene.”
Ah, yes, quite the nasty use of a tortoise in that show.
Everybody has a turtle story.
One of my students, Timothy Thompson, recounts a family tale starring his great-uncle Craig. Craig was five or six years old when he talked his parents into buying him a turtle for a pet. On the drive home, as Thompson recounts the family yarn, “Little Craig was holding his new pet when the turtle decided to withdraw into its shell. Craig thought this meant his turtle was dead. So he rolled down the window and chucked the poor turtle onto the freeway.”
“I guess I’m just like a turtle that’s hidin’ underneath its horny shell,” sang Janis Joplin in “Turtle Blues” on her 1968 album Cheap Thrills.
When I ask former U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan for a turtle story, she claims she has none. But she notes that she wrote a poem, “Turtle,” and then recites a few lines.
“Why the turtle?” I ask.
“Because it’s such a perfect emblem of having to go slowly and of clumsiness and of primitive sorts of movements,” she says. “It’s one of my favorite poems. It was written because I was so frustrated for so many years, which goes to show how valuable frustration is.”
“Cat’s Cradle!” says my son Michael when I bring turtles into our dinner conversation one night, and he quotes from a Newton Hoenikker letter at the start of the novel. The next day I find the passage in my collection of Vonnegut’s works: “We all sat there in the car while Angela kept pushing the starter until the battery was dead. And then father spoke up. You know what he said? He said, ‘I wonder about turtles.’ ‘What do you wonder about turtles?’ Angela asked him. ‘When they pull in their heads,’ he said, ‘do their spines buckle or contract?’”
Nope, neither. The neck vertebrae pull into a U shape when most turtles and tortoises yank their heads into their shells. Some species fold their neck sideways under the lip of their carapace.
Adventurer Yossi Ghinsberg chose not to eat a turtle when he was wandering alone, lost and starving in the Bolivian Amazon Basin. He lived to write a survival classic, Lost in the Jungle, and told his turtle story to the BBC for its Survival Stories radio series. “It was the first turtle I saw,” he said about the potential meal that appeared in the jungle as he wandered, hoping for rescue. He imagined throwing a rock and it hitting the turtle. “And then it just looked at me. The moment our eyes met, something happened to me, and I actually asked his forgiveness and promised him I’m not going to hurt him. I let him go. I cannot explain it,” he told the radio audience. “I had no problem to eat its flesh raw. But there was something that happened when the turtle looked at me. For a second I thought that we are the same thing in the same situation, and I just couldn’t hurt it.” This from a man who expressed no trouble killing, roasting, and eating monkeys during his ordeal.1
“Happy Together,” a cheery ditty, was released in 1967. “I can’t see me lovin’ nobody but you for all my life,” sang the Turtles. Not that the band or its members related to chelonians. Their name was just a gimmick, the band’s cofounder, Mark Volman, tells me in 2016. “Our manager at the time recommended the name, thinking it would be misread as a British Invasion band,” remembers Volman. “He thought that people would think that we were like the Beatles.” The band was still touring when he and I talked; it was scheduled to play at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds in Louisville that evening. Volman divides his time: when he’s not on the road with the Turtles, he teaches at Belmont University’s Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business in Nashville. “We couldn’t come up with anything much better,” he says about the band’s name, “so we just took it.” Despite the lack of connection to turtles, fans shower the band with turtle stuff. But as for Volman and his mates, “it was nothing to do with having any kind of relationship to the animal. We were looking for a name to get played on the radio and Turtles seemed like a good way to go.”
The flâneurs of mid-1800s Paris strolled the streets for amusement and distraction as they studied the cityscape and its inhabitants. In his analysis of their languid pace, critic Walter Benjamin cites their use of turtles as a tool of their art. “Around 1840,” Benjamin writes, “it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flâneurs like to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had their way,” Benjamin concludes, “progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace.”2 I found the Benjamin essay in the University of Oregon stacks, a copy heavily annotated in pencil by a previous library client whose marginalia next to this passage is merely one word—an excited “Turtles!” I agree, the image of Parisian dandies out walking with their leashed turtles is intriguing, entertaining. Trouble is, aside from the undocumented Benjamin reference, I find no record of the oddity. Nonetheless, ever since Walter Benjamin asserted it, the turtle-walking flâneurs show up as footnotes in all sorts of literature, from the academic to the popular.
Then there was Fluff, the Magic Turtle. Back when the Peter, Paul, and Mary dragon tune was popular, my friend Bob Simmons lived in Austin with a box turtle. “She kept going under the couch,” Simmons remembers. “We’d lose her for days and we’d worry, ‘What happened to Fluff?’” When Fluff would finally reappear, she’d be covered with dust bunnies. Simmons and his roommates came up with an easy fix. They epoxied a length of stiff wire to the top of Fluff’s yellow and black carapace. The wire blocked Fluff from burrowing under furniture, and now she was easy to find as she roamed the apartment: flying from the wire was a hand-drawn American flag.
Stanley, the red-eared slider, was the adventurous turtle of another friend, George Papagiannis. He and I talked turtle over a bottle of wine in his Paris flat. His boyhood home was a Manhattan apartment on the fifteenth floor of a skyscraper with a strict no dogs or cats rule. But turtles were allowed, and a series of sliders lived in George’s plastic oval turtle home with a green plastic palm tree and ramp from the island to the pool. George watched them and fed them by hand. The turtles died. His mother orchestrated a moment of mourning before they were, of course, flushed down the toilet. And they were replaced, one slider after another. But Stanley was special. He, claims George, had a distinct personality.
“Stanley was a standout because he stood up.” Perched on his hind legs he routinely attempted to pull himself over the plastic walls of his enclosure. “He would stand against that clear plastic, trying.” George still is convinced decades later that “Stanley wanted to figure out what was on the other side. For him, there was a bigger world out there.”
The apartment featured a balcony overlooking the corner of Ninth Avenue and 23rd Street. When the weather was pleasant, George would take Stanley outside to bask in the sunshine from the confines of a cardboard Bloomingdale’s shirt box. Stanley would stand on his hind legs, scratching at the walls of the box, trying to see over its lip. One fine day, George went back out on the balcony to collect Stanley, but he was not in the box and he was nowhere to be found on the balcony. Curious Stanley had managed to get himself out of the box. “The place that he wanted to be was on the other side,” said George, who was convinced his favorite turtle had taken a fifteen-floor flyer to the ground. “I was devastated. I couldn’t believe it.”
George raced down to the street and searched, but no Stanley. No remnants of Stanley. Stanley had simply disappeared. “The only thing I could think of was maybe a gust of wind had taken Stanley,” George said. “My only comfort was that maybe Stanley landed on a taxi and now was living the dream, seeing all of New York from the hood of a taxicab.”
Turtles fill our lore, from the classics to pop culture. Aesop’s tortoise and hare teach us timeless lessons. Bert the Turtle fueled paranoia in the 1951 civil defense propaganda film Duck and Cover. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tried to entertain us while they peddled conspicuous consumption. Dr. Seuss created that megalomaniac Yertle the Turtle—the good doctor reminding us at the end of the tale, “And the turtles, of course … all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.” The University of Maryland calls their sports teams the Terrapins (and nicknames them the Terps). The team’s mascot is Testudo—Latin for tortoise. The Muppets Swedish chef attempts to make turtle soup in an early episode of Sesame Street, but the turtle fights back, pulls its head into its shell, then shoots at the confounded chef with a gun that replaces its head.
“It’s turtles all the way down,” explains what holds up our world. The origin of that theory is lost, but anthropologist Clifford Geertz tells it as an exchange between an Englishman and an Indian. “The Englishman,” writes Geertz, “having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? ‘Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.’”3
These types of attributes, idiosyncrasies, and tales show the style and stuff that make turtles and tortoises unique characters of the animal kingdom and help create their special allure throughout human experience.
My first encounter with a turtle mirrors that of many grammar school boys. I can’t remember where I got it. Nor do I know for sure what type of turtle it was. But it was likely a red-eared slider—the most popular pet turtle in America. It lived in a clear plastic tub punctuated, if memory serves, by a green plastic palm tree—the ubiquitous pet turtle habitat. It could swim around in water at the bottom of its quarters or it could crawl up its plastic ramp to bask on its plastic island under its plastic palm. We failed to become close before it succumbed to I do not know what. And, as I recall, it left the house in the manner of so many of its cousins: the poor little guy was flushed down the toilet—like Stanley, he was that small.
Turtles, capturing the human imagination, have represented longevity, fertility, strength, durability, and stamina to people worldwide. Our fascination with turtles too often has been at their peril. They are undemanding, if messy, pets. In religious ceremonies spanning the globe turtles are revered as deities or intermediaries to the gods. Before laws protected them, we routinely used their shells for guitar picks, combs, eyeglass frames, and jewelry. Turtle parts are still used—often illicitly—in traditional medicine, frequently as a treatment for sexual dysfunction. Turtle soup is common on menus; its meat is stewed and its eggs are mixed into elixirs.
As their populations continue to drop turtles have never been more valuable in the marketplace. Critically endangered species command high prices on the black market. Costa Rican businessmen travel from San José to the Pacific Coast to drink salsa infused with sea turtle eggs in hopes the potion revitalizes their sex drive. The upper middle classes in Asia are indulging a renewed (and frequently illegal) interest in turtles for pets, as ornaments, for food, and as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. Rare Yunnan box turtles list clandestinely for as much as $200,000. The same international trade routes that are used to run guns and drugs are also used to transport turtles illegally from their natural habitats to buyers in distant cities. Despite national laws and international treaties protecting the animals, the likelihood that turtle smugglers will suffer arrest is minimal and penalties are paltry compared with the profits.
To some skittish observers, turtles sure do not look as embraceable as koala bears. They may not be as easy to anthropomorphize as a chimpanzee. They do not tempt a bloody death like a pet tiger. But turtles tell great stories. Throwbacks to dinosaurs! Enviable longevity! As valuable to smugglers as drugs and guns! What’s not captivating about turtles and tortoises?
The barrier that exists for many of us to identify with reptiles often influences their care and feeding. It never would have occurred to me as a boy that my “pet” turtle needed something more than a plastic container for its home, just as it never bothered me much when it was flushed down the toilet. Perhaps because reptiles don’t look like us or come when they’re called, they can seem disposable and replaceable—and without personality. It’s easy to accept a double standard: relative luxury for cats and dogs, less than humane lodgings for snakes and lizards and turtles.
Lonesome George, the aged bachelor giant of the Galápagos, was much longer lived than my pet turtle. Old George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdonii) on Earth, drew hordes of tourists, who came gawking at his hulking wrinkled self—a poster boy for endangered species protection. George stared back at the curious from his Darwin Station pen until he finally succumbed to old age at an estimated one hundred years. Fancy taxidermy performed by the American Museum of Natural History preserved this icon of extinction.4 Now the curious can view George as an exhibit on the Galápagos, where he’s polished and posed like a Vogue runway model.
Other Galápagos tortoises lumber around in their ample enclosure at the Turtle Conservancy’s Behler Chelonian Center in Southern California, adjacent to the picnic table where I’m meeting with Peter Paul van Dijk. In addition to his role as director of Field Conservation Programs at the conservancy, van Dijk engages in important turtle research and conservation work with other organizations. He is the lead author of the annual Checklist of Turtles of the World and director of the tortoise and freshwater turtle biodiversity program at Conservation International. “I’m just one of many,” he tells me with modesty when I call him one of the world’s leading turtle experts, modesty accentuated by his measured responses to questions in a voice tinged with remnants of his Dutch accent. His introductory story is familiar. His parents acquiesced to his childhood request for red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). It’s been turtles for van Dijk ever since, from his PhD field research among turtles in their Thai habitat to his current assignments.
“They’re living, walking dinosaurs,” says van Dijk, explaining what he finds compelling about his life’s work. “They’re just so clumsy, so unrealistic, so improbable, and yet they are a success story.” He marvels at how they survived when dinosaurs did not, how they thrived as climates and oceans and continents shifted. He calls them “ultimate survivors” if left alone. “Once they mature, like those”—he gestures toward the gawky, giant Galápagos tortoises grazing across the path from us—”they are pretty well indestructible and will go on for decades.” Barring accidents, or a lucky and strong predator like a jaguar, they live long lives, “and they don’t go reproductively senile.” They can breed as long as they can breathe. Getting to adulthood is the trick: the eggs and the hatchlings and the young suffer massive attrition. Habitat loss and human lust for all things turtle combine to create existential crises for those adult turtles that do manage to beat the odds and mature.
Van Dijk celebrates the personalities he found in the turtles he used to keep. “I did connect with individual animals. They recognized me versus other people. I recognized them individually. I knew their preferences. I knew their temperament. There is very much a connection like with any living individual, whether it’s a turtle, a dog, or a cat.” He no longer keeps a turtle collection, and not only because his fieldwork often keeps him far from home. “I believe the best place for a wild animal is in the wild.”
It makes sense that van Dijk as a turtle expert can differentiate between the animals in his care, but isn’t it a stretch to determine that the reptiles recognized him? “There’s more going on in those little brains than we give them credit for,” he insists. “Their response to me walking into the greenhouse where they were living was different from my mother or a visitor walking in.”
Maybe because he was recognized as a source of food and not as an individual? And what does he think is going in those little brains? The answer is quick and glib, accompanied by a sly smile.
“We don’t know. We don’t speak turtle yet.”
Pressed to speculate, van Dijk lists basic instincts as turtle brain priorities: survival, food, and reproduction. But critical thinking, contemplation, musing, daydreaming—surely he doesn’t attribute such behavior to our turtle friends.
“I wouldn’t exclude that possibility,” is the surprising answer from the scientist.
“Every so often they’re deciding to go this way rather than to go that way. Why do they go this way? Is it purely random? I don’t think so. There is some consideration going on in their heads that we’re not even scratching the surface of.” We’ve yet to figure out what that is, he theorizes, because we’re not paying enough attention.
— Dinosaurs Among Us —
Contemporary turtles and tortoises belong to the order Chelonia and evolved toward their current status during the Jurassic period, coexisting with dinosaurs. The earliest turtle-esque reptile yet discovered—the ur-turtle that most matches its contemporary relatives—is Proganochelys quenstedti, a Triassic fellow who lived in Germany south of Stuttgart give or take 210 million years ago, as did kin on the other side of our world in what is now Thailand. There were some distant cousins evolving before Proganochelys, but they lacked the full package: a carapace on the back and a plastron protecting the belly—those shell halves that enclose and protect the turtle body. Proganochelys (the name means “before chelonians”) carried some baggage missing from today’s turtles, most noticeably, a club for a tail and armor on its legs. The club may have been a weapon or simply a defensive obstacle to predators.5 The leg armor, along with the spikes on its neck and head, were for protection because P. quenstedti predated our contemporary turtles’ unique ability to yank head and extremities into their shells for safekeeping.6 Or so was the longtime prevailing belief.
It’s Easter Monday in the Swabian Alps and almost everything is closed for the holiday—but not the museum in sleepy little Trossingen, a village just over an hour’s drive south of Stuttgart. Proganochelys was unearthed in a gully here, and one of the fossilized ur-turtles is now housed here on its back in a glass case, among replica skeletons of the dinosaurs it roamed with.
The museum’s volunteer curator, Volker Neipp, is opening the case for me. I want to commune hands-on with the oldest stem turtle yet discovered, the extinct immediate precursor of contemporary turtles.
“To touch her is special,” he says about Proganochelys. “How long are you and I going to live? This girl lived before what we even think about. Imagine what she has seen.”
Curator Neipp casually swings the glass door open and invites me to time-travel back 210 million years and touch the Proganochelys lying immobile on her back, two claws grasping at the air, dragonlike spikes on the edge of her carapace protecting her (and making her look so much the distant cousin of alligator snapping turtles). I reach into the case to grab a claw and hold it. “Careful!” calls out Neipp. “Don’t break it!”
We hold hands a moment before we (or at least I) say good-bye; with that touch somehow I feel we are bridging her era and ours. I leave for another appointment while she spends her eternity there, both a link to Fred and another reminder that extinction is forever.
Up the road in Tübingen, Eberhard Karls University paleontologist Ingmar Werneburg, a Proganochelys specialist, is making news. He’s confident fellow scientists erred in their analysis and that his models prove his hypothesis that the stem turtle could retract its head and extremities, making it an even closer relative to Fred. “The initial evolution of neck retraction,” he and his colleagues assert, “occurred in a near synchrony with the origin of the turtle shell as a place to hide the unprotected neck.”7 But unless fossilized Proganochelys remains are found with legs and head pulled into the shell, the theory will remain just that.
Turtles, says Werneburg when we meet, help people understand evolution. “If they see a turtle, they see evolution. The world changed but the turtle did not.” Ever the scientist, researcher Werneburg also displays a poet’s approach to his field of study. “Sometimes turtles offer a little smile,” he reports, “a smile that projects the wisdom of the earth.”
Not that there aren’t turtles today that can’t do the head-in-shell maneuver. I met one—appropriately named the big-headed (Platysternon megacephalum)—when I ventured into that endangered turtle’s Hong Kong range. There’s simply no space in its shell for its big head; its bone-hard skull provides compensatory armor. Snapping turtles and alligator snapping turtles cannot retract their heads and legs into their shells. The aggressive snappers lure and stalk prey, counting on their nasty dispositions and vigorous sharp bite to combat enemies. With their armored legs and dragon-spike shells, snappers look closely related to Proganochelys. Today’s sea turtles cannot retract their heads and legs either; they need their big flippers for efficient swimming and evolved with a streamlined body lacking adequate space to accommodate retracted extremities. The leatherback sea turtle and various softshell turtles—as their names suggest—do not sport hard Proganochelys-legacy carapaces.
Turtles live in the water, tortoises on the land, and terrapins commute between the two. They all bite with their beaks and chew without the help of teeth. The shell on the turtle and tortoise back—that trademark carapace—can be high-domed or all but flat and everything in between, depending on what a species needs in order for it to fit where it lives and protect against whatever predators may chase it. The carapace is the backbone and ribs spread out, fused together, and filled in solid by bony scutes that create the intriguing surface patterns prized by turtle collectors. Females stash sperm after they copulate, allowing them to lay fertile egg clutch after egg clutch without needing to engage another fellow. And the sex of their offspring is determined by the temperature where their eggs incubate: the hotties are female, the cool are male.8 Hence climate change influences the male-female ratio.
Turtles and tortoises are as varied as they are extraordinary. The critically endangered Australian white-throated snapper sucks in oxygen via the same rear-end opening—its cloaca—that it uses for excretion, mating, and laying its eggs. The Chinese softshell turtle voids urine through its mouth. The North American alligator snapping turtle sticks out a wormlike tongue appendage, tricking fish to follow it into its mouth. The South American red-footed tortoise clucks like a chicken. The Eastern musk turtle scares off attackers by releasing the odor that earned it the nickname “Stinkpot.” Turtles can be tiny three-inch, five-ounce Cape turtles or huge two-ton mammoth sea turtles. There are carnivore turtles that steal bait off hooks of fishermen and alligator snapping turtles that eat common snappers. There are strict vegetarian turtles. Say hello to the critically endangered angonokas, more commonly known as ploughshare turtles because of the prehistoric-looking ploughs jutting from under their little heads like the cowcatcher on a steam engine. Their home range, as lawless as any in the Wild West, is in Madagascar, and they are being decimated by illegal poaching: each ploughshare is worth as much as $50,000 on the black market—ten times what a Philippine forest turtle brings to a smuggler. Captive breeding, designed to save ploughshares, fuels the illegal trade as new generations, vulnerable to poachers, are returned to the wild. Soviet space scientists sent a pair of turtles around the moon, the first Earth animals up there, predating by some six months Neil Armstrong’s famous step on the lunar surface. And then there’s Jonathan, a turtle still living as of this writing at the British governor’s quarters on the island of St. Helena, and who, at 183 years, may be the oldest living creature on Earth.
• Fred Arrives! •
I’m rushing out for an appointment, grab my lunch and pull open the front door. There, sitting on the doormat, is a FedEx package with LIVE ANIMALS scrawled on it. It’s a cold, rainy day. “Fred’s here!” I call out to Sheila, and since I’m running late for work I leave the box for her to deal with. By nightfall I’m not yet home and a worried Sheila decides to open the carton. Inside is Styrofoam popcorn protecting a plastic storage container, and inside that is a cloth bag. “I was relieved to see a little movement in the cloth sack he was in,” she wrote in an email message to me. “He also moved again when I talked to him.” She cut the rubber band that secured the bag and placed it on the living room floor. “His head came right out and he looked at me. ‘Hi, Fred,’ I greeted him. He began to walk fast, went into a corner and stayed there. He is not a slow turtle.” No question that by the time I get home Sheila’s bonded with Fred. She talks to him, talks about him, worries about his adjustment to a new home, gives him water, lettuce shreds, and diced apple. And who knows, Fred may feel the same about her.
He looks the size of half a small cantaloupe. I pick Fred up and place him—gently, of course—in his house. After dinner Sheila checks on him again and I overhear her lullabying him with the same sweet, soft contralto she used with her human babies.
Copyright © 2018 by Peter Laufer
Foreword copyright © 2018 by Richard Branson