What I did this summer

One morning last June, the dog woofed at a strange lump in our path fifty feet from the lakeshore. It was a turtle.* Its shell was 9-10 inches long, it’s legs were striped yellow, and it had a long red streak along the side of its head–a Red-Eared Slider. I had known this Red-Eared Slider when I was a kid. I’ll get to that later. The dog circled it, barking. I’d heard that they’re invasive, so I knew that in all good conscience, I couldn’t turn it loose again. After a couple of phone calls, I realized no one was going to bail me out. So I picked up the turtle, and with the dog leaping and jumping and barking around me, I carried it up to the nursery where I put some wood chips in a big pot and put the turtle in the pot. But the pot had ridges on it and the turtle was almost climbing out. Just in time, Lisa arrived at work and we moved the turtle into a deep garbage can. When I picked it up, it hissed at me, which was kind of scary.

What to do with it? I did some research, found out they are indeed considered invasive and are a real problem in Lake Washington. Now, let me back up a little bit here–like 49 years–and tell you the story of how this turtle came to live in the lake.

The prequel: When I was a young child I had a series of pet turtles. Almost every kid my age had one. Lisa had one too! These baby turtles (about 2 inches long) came with a kit. It included a clear plastic pool about a foot across that had an island with a ramp and a little plastic palm tree. The first two turtles I had met a bad end. I’m not sure why they died, but it must have had to do with 7-year-old neglect. I do remember my mother nagging me to change the water. The third one that I got I kept in the backyard. I made a fence of bricks and chunks of wood. I buried a dishpan in the ground and put a floating raft in it. But this third turtle disappeared from its idyllic little home. It may have made its way down to Portage Bay (we lived in the Montlake District in Seattle), but I suppose a raccoon could have eaten it. The fourth turtle I named Active, because it was very lively. Active benefited from this little habitat that I had created. But that wasn’t enough for me. One day, our family was on its way out to the lake where we had a summer cabin (where the nursery is now), and I took my turtle along in a bucket. My sister and I took the turtle down to the dock. Wouldn’t it be fun if we let it have a swim in a real lake? So my sister set it in. It swam around nicely–and then made a mad dive for the bottom. My cousin, Neil, dove in and made a valiant attempt to swim down after it. His heroics were in vain. It was quite a scene, yelling and crying.

I never got another turtle. Through the years, there have been very occasional turtle sightings in the lake. I’ve always wondered if the turtle spotted basking on a log was that same turtle, Active. So when the dog and I happened upon the turtle that June morning, I realized that here at my feet, with its head and extremities tucked safely into its shell, sat my former pet. Forty-nine glorious years of freedom had come to an end.**

Active slept in the garbage can overnight and in the morning I did some serious phone calling. The people on the other end of the line–at animal rescues, humane societies, animal controls, PAWS–were not very encouraging. “We’re overrun with Red-Eared Sliders.” “They’re very difficult to place, because they are big, they need water all the time and it has to be changed constantly, so they are a lot of work.” “Some shelters will take them, but they wind up being euthanized.” One or 2 people suggested I could just turn it loose again. Finally, a friend at Just Frogs, Toads Too in Edmonds gave me the number of a no-kill shelter called Forgotten Kingdom. I called him immediately. To my astonishment, he said, “Oh, we are all out of Red-Eared Sliders. Sure, bring it to me and I can find it a home.”

So Lisa and I loaded it*** into an old dog cage and into the back of her car and headed out before the guy could change his mind. He was manning a display at a feed store in Lake Stevens. There was this guy, Paul Lewis,**** sitting outside the store with two cages and some aquariums filled with snakes, lizards, a small tortoise, and of all things, a nutria. He handled my Red-Eared Slider with expertise, declared that it was a female and put it in with the tortoise. He took some time out from our conversation to douse the nutria with water so that the nutria could keep itself clean. This was obviously a man who really cared about animals. Forgotten Kingdom takes species that other shelters won’t. He works hard to find appropriate homes for the animals. As we were talking, the tortoise and the turtle were not getting along. So he moved Active in with the nutria.***** The nutria is a permanent resident in his shelter since nutrias are extremely destructive animals. They destroy whatever habitat they get loose in. Paul brings it to his educational displays so that people can learn what nutrias look like and not mistake a beaver for a nutria— and accidentally shoot a beaver. This nutria is a pet– with a personality. Paul has to bring the nutria along to every display because it gets upset if he leaves it home.

Paul explained that Red-Eared Sliders are tremendously damaging, eating salmon fry and salmon eggs and out-competing native turtles. So when he adopts them out, he makes sure that they have a pool with a fence around it. We left, knowing that Active was in good hands at last and would find a home. As we were driving south again, it struck me what a remarkable person we had just met. A person with such generosity of spirit that he is willing to take in the least wanted animals, that everyone else would give up on. And he is able to encourage others to give them a home. Most of the animals in the shelter are in dire straits because of human carelessness. Nutrias didn’t leave South America and come to North America on purpose-they were brought here. Red-Eared Sliders were exported from their East Coast homes so pet stores could make a lot of money. The invasive turtles and nutrias are just being turtles and nutrias. They can’t help where they wind up.

Some people might call Paul Lewis crazy or naïve to think that he can put a dent in the problem of unwanted animals. I think that he is setting an example for the rest of us. This is the way we should be: generous, hopeful and kind to the least of these.

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