IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Didn’t Know Crazy Turtle Ladies Were A Thing Until I Became One

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E.B. Bartels
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Looking around the New England Reptile Expo, I decided I wasn’t one of these people.

Older men examined crickets, kids clutched Tupperwares of geckos, but the crowd seemed mostly twenty-to-forty-year-olds trapped in a mall-Goth-teenager phase. Baggy black pants. Dark dyed hair. Clothing from Hot Topic. Tattoos of reptiles. Live snakes around arms. Piercings. Lizards on shoulders. Pasty skin. Glazed eyes.

“I bet most of these people listen to Marilyn Manson,” my boyfriend, Richie, whispered.

It was my idea to go to the Reptile Expo. A month before, I'd adopted a three-year-old red-footed tortoise named Terrence. While I was not looking for another turtle-friend -- Mr. T, as Richie calls him, is enough -- I was intrigued. I wanted to see tortoises, look for deals on supplies, and people watch. I wanted to know who loves reptiles in the way other people love dogs and cats. Was I one of them? Richie came with, up for an adventure. We drove to New Hampshire.

Making turtle friends at the New England Reptile Expo. This is giant, badass Sulcata tortoise.

Making turtle friends at the New England Reptile Expo. This is giant, badass Sulcata tortoise.

Baby red-foots!

Baby red-foots!

How Terrence will look when he is fifteen.

How Terrence will look when he is fifteen.

After paying the nine-dollar entry, our hands stamped with a cartoon-y turtle, I felt assured I was not one of them. I was wearing average-looking jeans and a sweatshirt. No live animals were on my person. I chatted with the vendors selling red-foots, but it was pleasant, friendly, normal. Right? I found a discounted heating pad for Terrence (winter is coming), Richie bought aquarium driftwood, and I sprung for a wood-and-wire structure – a tortoise playpen. We talked excitedly about Terrence frolicking outside in springtime. These were practical purchases. I hadn’t gone over the edge, right?

On our way home, we visited my grandmother. When I told her about our morning, specifically the tortoise playpen, she rolled her eyes.

“Sheesh,” she said. “Have a baby already!”

In the car, Richie and I laughed. A baby? We can barely manage grocery shopping! A tortoise isn’t a baby! But then I looked at the clock and saw how long we’d been out, and I began to wonder how Terrence was doing.

Maybe I needed to reassess.

Turtles have been my favorite animal forever. Perhaps I felt connected to them as a non-athletic slow-eater. I, like a turtle, enjoy spending hours sitting still in warm places. I slouch and my neck sticks out, in a turtle-y way. Perhaps I’d been one in a past life. As a kid, I loved looking at Galapagos tortoises in the encyclopedia. I spent hours at the deep-sea tank at New England Aquarium, watching Myrtle, the 80-year-old green sea turtle, swim.

During my childhood, I had half-a-dozen turtle pets. Many were painted turtles my brother, dad or I found. The first was Flower Speedy Andersen Bartels – she lived in a kiddie pool, feasting on raw hamburger. My dad built a little pond for Flower, only to have her escape when it was finished. The turtles that followed were also temporary: Eddie, Charlie Brown, others with now-forgotten names, a miniature musk turtle that smelled horrible when scared which was the entire time he stayed in our kitchen. Ultimately, we released each in the conservation land near our house.

Then came Aristotle. He was a desert tortoise, purchased at the pet store by sixth-grader-me with allowance savings. I saw myself as an old woman, Aristotle by my side, thanks to tortoises’ longevity… until my dad lost him. 

We let Aristotle wander in the backyard, but under close watch: Tortoises are faster than you think. One day, my dad let him walk, but the phone rang. He left Aristotle, lost track of time, and when he returned, Aristotle was gone. For 15 years, I held this over my dad, waiting to get a new tortoise.

Polaroid of Aristotle, our dog Gwen, and me. Circa 1999.

Polaroid of Aristotle, our dog Gwen, and me. Circa 1999.

Polaroid of Aristotle wandering in our yard. Circa 1999.

Polaroid of Aristotle wandering in our yard. Circa 1999.

I liked turtle objects, too. There was a palm-sized rubber turtle I carried around, a realistic plastic tortoise I played with in the tub. My dad brought back turtles from traveling: a green porcelain from Hong Kong, a black onyx from Korea, a yellow-red-and-green ceramic from Kuala Lumpur, an enamel box from Japan. My grandmother found one carved from volcanic ash in Pompeii. I have several of Murano glass from Venice. 

The turtles became an official collection, arranged in lines on my bookshelf. I removed books to clear enough space. I began to get turtle-everything as presents: porcelain and Swarovski crystal miniatures, stuffed toys, turtle-print socks, sweaters. In a life goals list written in belabored, childish letters, I put Have over 150 turtles in my turtle collection number one.

Some of the turtles in my collection. Clockwise from the top: from Kuala Lumpur, Pompeii, Uganda, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Venice.

Some of the turtles in my collection. Clockwise from the top: from Kuala Lumpur, Pompeii, Uganda, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Venice.

But by eighth grade, Aristotle was gone, and I was sick of turtle-related presents. High school was coming. Tone it down or never make friends. I didn’t want to be that turtle-freak-weirdo-girl. I announced I was done collecting. My mom helped me sort, keeping the most special, donating junkier plastic and plush. I put the remainders in a box.

A childhood phase, how some kids are with ponies or Taylor Hanson. I focused on our dogs, took photography, wrote stories, did theatre. I went to college. I was well adjusted, happy. I joined the radio station, drank Jim Beam, studied abroad in Russia. I was quirky, sure, like my love of movie soundtracks and Eastern European literature, but I wasn’t crazy. Right?

But it seeped out. New friends noticed my love of turtles. I began to get birthday cards featuring them. A friend traveled to Uganda, bringing me back a gorgeous tortoise carved from wood. I made a shell out of paper plates and went as a turtle to a theme party. I shared my favorite YouTube video: a curly-haired dog balancing on the back of a tortoise. 

Later, when I taught middle school, having a favorite animal was socially acceptable. I wore turtle earrings to class; my students swooned. My aunt painted me a rock like a turtle. I started dating Richie, who loves all living creatures save cats. We held hands at the aquarium, watching Myrtle swim. On the beach, we stumbled upon a leatherback’s carcass. 

For Christmas, Richie designed a pendant in the shape of a loggerhead, a turquoise chunk as its shell. I got a tattoo of Alfie, the tortoise-main-character in Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot, which, naturally, had been a childhood favorite.

My tattoo of Alfie, main character of Roald Dahl’s classic book, Esio Trot.

My tattoo of Alfie, main character of Roald Dahl’s classic book, Esio Trot.

I moved into an apartment by myself. No roommates to negotiate with. This was the time. I started reading tortoise-care books, researching breeds, searching Petfinder, pet stores.

Finally, on Craigslist, I located a woman giving away her 13-year-old daughter’s tortoise because she lost interest. Richie came with me to her apartment, crowded with cats, but on a table under the television, was Terrence in his tank. The woman picked him up. Terrence stretched his neck and looked around, waving his forearms, dotted with orangey scales. She handed him to me, and I flashed a shit-eating grin as I petted his head.

“He’s very friendly,” she said. “No one pays attention to him here. I just want him to have a good home, you know?” I nodded.

Selfie with Terrence on his first night in his new home. I am not excited at all. Clearly.

Selfie with Terrence on his first night in his new home. I am not excited at all. Clearly.

I set up Terrence’s tank next to my desk, where I spend my time when home. I took him to the vet for a check up. I bought produce and figured out his favorites (spring mix, yellow squash, strawberries). When he ate a pellet from my hand, I almost wept in delight. A friend alerted me to an Etsy store selling crocheted tortoise cozies; I bought two.

Terrence modeling one of his “tortoise cozies” – the hamburger edition. He dressed up for Halloween.

Terrence modeling one of his “tortoise cozies” – the hamburger edition. He dressed up for Halloween.

Away for the night, I worry about Terrence. I watched a YouTube video of a tortoise chasing a ball and bought Terrence one. First thing each day, I clean Terrence’s bowls, prepare fresh food, change his water. After, he wanders on the floor while I work.

Terrence tries to make friends with the rock paperweight my aunt painted.

Terrence tries to make friends with the rock paperweight my aunt painted.

“That’s gross,” friends said. “Doesn’t he poop everywhere?” Surprisingly only a few times -- and how is tortoise poop grosser than cat hairball vomit?

When Terrence is out, I get up from my desk, stretch, and seek his hiding places: under my bed, behind the trashcan or turntable. When I find him, I smile. If he has found a new spot -- recently he clambered up on the shelf of one bookcase, as if inspecting the titles -- I take a photo.

Terrence enjoys playing hide and seek, but only if he gets to hide.

Terrence enjoys playing hide and seek, but only if he gets to hide.

Terrence likes to climb on things, such as my sneakers.

Terrence likes to climb on things, such as my sneakers.

He also likes to lurk under my bed.

He also likes to lurk under my bed.

Spot the real turtle.

Spot the real turtle.

I’ve always been an excessive Instagrammer – I’ve posted 2,725 photos in two years – but of the nine photos from October 21, five were of Terrence. A high school friend commented:

“dude you have like the next 60 years to take photos of the tortoise; you may want to save some angles for later?” I looked through my Instagram. On October 20, I posted only two photos, but both were of Terrence. Since he arrived in September, I'd posted over 30 photos of him.

Holding Terrence like a baby. Just one of the photos of Terrence I posted on October 21.

Holding Terrence like a baby. Just one of the photos of Terrence I posted on October 21.

When friends come over, they immediately want to hold Terrence or keep a wary distance.

“You’re cute,” one friend said, peering in his tank. “But I never want to touch you!” “Turtle diseases,” she added, shrugging. I understood. Turtles are not everyone’s thing.

Just look at that face!

Just look at that face!

“Wow,” another said, “he must be so dumb.” My eyes flashed. It was a crazy reaction -- “lizard brain” can’t be far from tortoise brain -- but I thought of Terrence’s strong opinions on food. Fuck this kale, he seems to think, get me strawberries. My friend noticed my look.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to upset you saying your pet was dumb.” I felt embarrassed, an overprotective parent getting called out. But some friends get it. Richie gets it. The good ones, even if they don’t get it, love me anyway.

I rediscovered the box of turtles I put away. When decorating, living alone was again freeing. At first glance, the apartment looks average: books, a sofa, framed postcards. Look again, and a hundred reptile eyes stare back. On shelves, interspersed with books, two-dozen tortoise figurines. In the bathroom, a sea turtle watercolor. The salt-and-pepper shakers are turtles.

They surprise me -- since the official collecting days ended, it’s been subconscious acquisition. Rifling through my sewing kit, I’m startled by a wooden turtle-shaped button. I open a drawer, finding a turtle coin purse. Jesus, I think, this is a turtle too?

What? Not everyone has kissing turtle salt and pepper shakers in their home?

What? Not everyone has kissing turtle salt and pepper shakers in their home?

Terrence admiring my bathroom art of one of his distant relatives.

Terrence admiring my bathroom art of one of his distant relatives.

All of my turtle jewelry.

All of my turtle jewelry.

In October, finishing my Masters, I received half-a-dozen gifts; half were turtle-related. Terrence’s arrival sparked old habits. A gift for E.B.? Make it turtle-themed.

I reconnected with a family friend, who I hadn’t seen in 10 years, when our parents were friends and we had to hang out. We reminisced about when his family had visited our summerhouse.

“You had a tortoise! Not many people have them. It was memorable.”

“Funny,” I said and told him about Terrence. Over a decade passed, but to this friend, I appeared my same middle school self. I was self-conscious, until I realized I am the same.

I started the day of the Reptile Expo deciding which of six pairs of turtle earrings to wear. I added a green T-shirt printed with a turtle shell and the loggerhead necklace. “Average-looking jeans and a sweatshirt” my ass. Underneath, it’s there. I don’t look a New-Hampshire-mall-Goth, but I’m one of them.

E.B. Blizzard-Born, Mother of Tortoises, Breaker of Cages, Defender of the Reptiles, Provider of Leafy Greens and New Substrate. (Photo by Janna Herman)

E.B. Blizzard-Born, Mother of Tortoises, Breaker of Cages, Defender of the Reptiles, Provider of Leafy Greens and New Substrate. (Photo by Janna Herman)

It took 26 years, but I accept I’m a crazy turtle lady. This makes me happy, however odd it might be. I’ll smile hearing the scratching of Terrence’s feet across my floor. The pleasant comfort of a predictable companion. I’ll laugh at a YouTube video of a turtle “twerking”; I’ll chuckle at Patricia Marx on tortoises as an emotional support animals; I’ll cry reading a Modern Love essay about another woman and her tortoise.

I made Terrence and I hard-boiled eggs for breakfast. We ate them together – mine halved with salt, his chopped up in a little dish. I hope when I’m 75, Terrence is still around.

No surprise he is sitting on my lap as I write this.

Lap tortoise.

Lap tortoise.