A Ninja Turtle?

A Wandering Turtle (Photo Credit Tristan Green/Ham and High)

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.

(Photo Credit Tristan Green/Ham and High)

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!

Photo One by By Orchi - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1016717

A wild Hermann’s tortoise, one of the most commonly-kept European species prior to the trade ban (Photo One)

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 Credits

Photo One by By Orchi – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1016717

8 thoughts on “A Ninja Turtle?

  1. Anne

    Whilst living in Mmabatho (North West Province), we had several tortoises in our garden that we had rescued from dogs in the area (it was a new development at the time, so a lot of building was going on). When we moved to the Eastern Cape, conservationists warned us that tortoises do not relocate very easily and so we left them behind – they were later taken to a nearby game reserve. We enjoyed the company of an angulate tortoise (rescued from being eaten by a person!) in our garden for a couple of years: it roamed free and has finally left to find a companion. Creatures such as the terrapins you mention as well as tortoises need trace elements found in natural vegetation that the ‘pet owners’ cannot easily replicate. It is a myth that they can live on lettuce or cabbage leaves!

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      So interesting Anne,thank you! I met a couple of tortoises in South Africa and Zambia, and it was lovely to see them bustling about purposefully. I think their intelligence is much underrated (as it is with so many creatures).

      Reply
  2. Ann Bronkhorst

    Anne’s point about diet is interesting and little known here, I think. Our beloved tortoise, large and old when we found it in a local marshy place in the 70s, adored buttercup flowers but also showed interest in human toes …

    Reply
  3. gertloveday

    What a beautiful shell that Hermann’s tortoise has. I suppose they also have the risk of being killed for the shell which is then made into jewellery, spectacle frames etc.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Exactly ! The beautiful Madagascan Radiated Tortoise is often smuggled out for collectors and for its carapace. I know a lot of Australian reptiles are smuggled out for collections and for jewellery etc as well, including those very endearing shingleback lizards who apparently form long-lasting pair bonds and mourn when their partners are lost.

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        Oh dear…so sad the things we do to animlas.
        I feel very strongly about the treatment of pigs. So playful and intelligent and no idea they are only alive because someone wants to eat them.

      2. Bug Woman Post author

        I know. I worked with pigs on a city farm when I was a youngster. One day, two of the sows got through three sets of bolted gates and arrived at the bus station down the road. The only thing they didn’t do was buy a ticket. They weren’t destined for the chop, but of course they didn’t know that bless them. The most intelligent animals I’ve ever worked with, and I had a spell with chimps who are also no slouches….

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