It had to happen, you get to a certain age and the grim reaper catches up with you. A giant tortoise in the Calcutta zoo died recently. He was about 250 years old. I hate to see him go. The old geezer just brought back memories of another guy, a bit younger, but still quite a character in his own right.
He arrived one Christmas eve, compliments of my sister-in-law, the flying nun. Linda would make her seasonal drive up the pike from North Carolina and stay with us. She was a tiny woman with a large heart for social justice and rights of the individual. These rights extended to all the voiceless and unprotected. Seeing a rather large box turtle in the middle of the highway caused her to stop the car, examine the critter, and determine that he, indeed, was in need of an advocate. So she threw him into a cardboard box with a few scraps of Kentucky Fried Chicken and crossed several state lines to bring him to us. The gift that kept on giving.
In keeping with our family policy of naming all creatures (domestic or wild) which graced our midst, we promptly christened him. Actually, the credit may have to go to my sister-in-law. She chose Torquemada. It seemed out of character for this one sad and sick-looking tortoise but Linda, a former Shakespearean scholar, was never one to pass on drama. “What’s in a name?” seemed to be something she took to heart – even trying to persuade me and hubby to name our firstborn “Desdemona”. We preferred Jennifer. But I digress …
Into the chaos of Christmas eve, with a tree being decorated, food being prepared, and kids running amok, came our ailing visitor. On first sight, Torquemada was not something you would want to pick up and cuddle. He had drool running down his tightly clenched mouth; his eyes were firmly shut and surrounded by some type of crusty material. Adding insult to injury, there was a nasty crack in his shell. It was readily apparent that the old guy needed some triage and long-term care. That’s where I came in. That’s where most mothers come in. The holidays quickly passed. Sis-in-law visited local friends and soon left. Kids went outside to play with their new toys. Hubby went back to work. The sick turtle and I were left alone.
Once again, the universe was playing tag and I was “it”.
When my kids were small, it seemed we had just about every kind of creature living at our house at one time or another. I never grew up with pets myself but the maternal biology kicked in and I did what I could to support the next generation. There were guinea pigs (14 in the basement at one point during the height of science fairs and presentations), hamsters, gerbils, white rats, parakeets (who perched on bowls and sipped chicken soup), stray cats (who tried to eat the parakeets), wounded sparrows (one may have been the reincarnation of my dear departed dad) and pigeons (brought to my house by a third-grader in her book bag because she knew that Jenn’s mom would make it well). Reluctantly and without seeking such fame, I became the Saint Francis of Assisi of the neighborhood.
This dude, however, was proving to be my biggest challenge. Torquemada was such a physical wreck. I could envision my own mom shaking her head and warning, “Don’t touch it - you don’t know where it’s been.” Here I was, staring at an unknown entity which didn’t even have the courtesy to open its eyes and give me a trusty wink. Wheezing was the only sign of life. “Knock, knock … who are you?”
Knowledge is power. I started checking encyclopedias and calling pet stores. Eventually some kind clerk took pity on my ignorance and referred me to the local veterinary school; thus began my education into Wild Kingdom 101. I learned how to tell a boy turtle from a girl turtle (it’s all in the eyes - which were still sealed shut) and about age rings on shells, and just about everything a city gal wanted to know about turtles/tortoises.
Days passed, the runny nose and clenched eyes still did not improve. I did what was suggested – provide moist, warm air. However, my methodology was a bit eccentric. Every morning I took the turtle into the bathroom, ran the shower hot and steamy, held him next to my face and crooned: "Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning ..." I thought, somehow, that he would take comfort in hearing this since he was so far away from his home state. Nada.
The eyes were still shut and that drippy nose was really not getting any better. Disappointed in the nature books and pet stores and vets, I took the matter into my own hands. I went purely on maternal instinct and started rubbing Vicks VapoRub on his forehead. The morning showers and songs continued but now there was a pungent and pleasant aroma to the ritual. Ah, so soothing. I grew up with Vicks. How could this miss?
In a few more days the nose cleared up and, one beautiful morning in the shower, singing my heart out and holding Torquemada inches from my face, he finally opened one eye slowly (it was red - a male) and almost winked at me. Eureka - contact! I was so excited that I called my husband in the midst of his business meeting to tell him the good news. Needless to say, he did not share in my unbridled delight.
Our invalid made a full recovery and we then transported him to a local environmental center where I was told that he was quite an old gentleman (rings on shell). He had certainly been a patriarch of some North Carolina realm but now he was a senior citizen up north. The zoologist promised to take very good care of him in his twilight years. I phoned the nature center from time to time, just to make sure that he was really adjusting. Last told, it seemed that Torquemada had developed quite a harem of enamored, much younger, female turtles ….
Which goes to prove: the "older men and younger women" craziness cuts across all species of wild life, doesn't it?