Dear Readers, those of you of a certain age will remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle craze. The crime-fighting reptiles first appeared in a comic book in 1984, but have been resurrected occasionally ever since. The knock-on effect on real turtles, however, was not so benign – lots of people bought tiny terrapins as pets, only to discover that they grew to the size of a dinner plate, were extremely smelly if not cleaned out every day, and could be grumpy to boot. Many a terrapin disappeared into the local pond, where it set about eating frogs, toads, newts and even ducklings. I saw a very fine speciman sitting on a rock in the New River (Islington) a couple of years ago, so they can clearly also survive the winter.
The little chap in the picture below, though, was found wandering around the field at Martin’s school in East Finchley.
Very sensibly, the terrapin was put into the school’s pond (though I’m not sure what the rest of the pond population thought about it). Then, the turtle went walkabout again and gatecrashed a PE lesson. I wonder how much of a homing instinct these creatures have? S/he was clearly trying to get somewhere.
Eventually the terrapin’s owner appeared – they’d been on holiday and had known nothing about their pet’s escapade – apparently the animal has a perfectly nice pond at home, and that is presumably where s/he was headed.
The whole episode does make me think, though. Tortoises were a common and popular pet when I was a girl – my grandmother used to have a tortoise that would bang on the door with his shell when he wanted to come in from the garden, and would positively run across the floor at the sight of a strawberry. Children’s TV programmes such as Blue Peter featured a tortoise who would be ritually put to bed in a box filled with straw when it was time to hibernate. But such was the trade in the Mediterranean species who were the most commonly kept that the animals became endangered, and it’s now against the law to offer them for sale or trade them without a special permit. How often humans over-exploit the natural world and end up spoiling it!
The other thing that always worried me about pets like tortoises and parrots is their extreme longevity. What happens to these much-loved creatures when their owners die, or can no longer look after them? A puppy clearly isn’t only for Christmas, but a macaw or a tortoise can outlive a human easily. I know that people make provision in their wills, but I imagine that the transition, especially for a bird as intelligent as a parrot, must be extremely stressful and upsetting.
Still, at least the story of the East Finchley terrapin has a happy ending. I hope that s/he is soon back in the old, familiar pond, with a nice rock to sit on and lots of unsuspecting invertebrates to eat. And won’t they have some adventures to remember!
Photo One by By Orchi – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1016717