Old Man Turtle

Sometimes happiness is found in the simple fact that the wood turtle likes his food.

Earlier this summer, one of my favorite DNR officers Mike, brought me a large wood turtle that had been run over by a car. He had pulled over to help it cross the road and some young girl on her phone ran over it before he could reach it.

The shell was very badly damages with part of it completely broken free and a great deal of blood. He was a large for a wood turtle and I estimated that he must be around 35 to 40 years old. That’s really old for a wood turtle. Though there is a strong population in Michigan, you don’t often see wood turtles as they are rather reclusive and fast movers for their kind.

In addition to the injuries this poor old man had endured, he was missing all his front toes and claws. This wasn’t a recent event as they had healed to well rounded and callused stubs. It probably did not help him get traction on the pavement either. This turtle had definitely seen better days.

Usually, a turtle that badly damaged does not have a good prognosis and I send them straight to the freezer where they go into a permanent hibernation. (One must be careful what package they take out of the freezer when looking for a snack around here). There was something about this old boy though, that touched me. Maybe it was his calm demeanor, the way he met my eyes or the fact that he did not try to bite me.I told Mike I’d do my best.

To try and repair the shell, I needed to go to town to get some “Cassis Saver” from the automotive store. Though intended for auto bodies, it has proved to be an excellent medium for repairing turtle shells, especially those that spend time immersed in water. It’s even black, so isn’t obvious or doesn’t stand out to predators. When they naturally shed their outer scutes (think scales), the coating generally sloughs off with them.

I used some medical tape to stabilize the broken shell and put the turtle in the refrigerator to chill while I was gone. This slows the turtle down and not only keeps him calm, but allows me to work on him without a great deal of movement. (Again, assume there might not be what you are looking for in the Tupperware box)

When I got home, I cleaned the wounds and packed them with antibiotic powder. I used food grade plastic wrap over the gaps and sealed them with a light application of Cassis Saver. Then it was back in the fridge to chill and dry the first coat. Hours later, I applied more Chassis Saver and layered pieces of teabag for strength. Then back in the fridge.

Later that night, I heard my husband rummaging in the refrigerator.

“The fridge smells funny”. he said

“It’s chassis Saver” I replied.

“Why does the fridge smell like Chassis Saver”

“Because the turtle is in the fridge”

“Why does the turtle smell like Chasses Saver?”

“Because I’m fixing his shell”

“So why is the turtle in the refrigerator?”

“So he goes to sleep and doesn’t get his head stuck to the Chasses Saver while it dries.”

You’d think he’d know by now. He ended up with potato chips. (Good thing, by the next morning even the butter tasted like Chasses Saver.)
After several coats and another night of drying, I let the turtle slowly warm up. As he came awake, he started to move about, but I still had little hope. I offered every food I could, but he would eat nothing. I feared his digestive system had been damaged by the car. Each day I put him in a pan of water for a soak. About the fifth day I picked him up and there was the biggest “turtle turd” I had ever seen floating in the water. I guess the digestive tract worked. Still, he refused to eat. I offered bananas, apples, tomatoes, Lettuce and night crawlers …everything I knew to be their favorites. I even went to the pet store and paid an outrageous amount on some tortoise food that only seemed to attract fruit flies by the billion.
The next day, I gave up. He had been nearly two weeks without eating. I fought my way through the cloud of fruit flies and removed him from the container he was in and walked him outside. I figured he might as well enjoy the sunshine and herb garden with the time he had left. It was surrounded by a small fence to contain a young duck with a broken wing while he healed, so it seemed the perfect place. I knew he couldn’t dig his way out with no claws, but just in case I painted a fluorescent heart on his back with nail polish to may him more visible.
It was a brilliant, sunny day and he simply sat in the sun for a long while. Later I went out and he was again sitting in his pan of water. Holy cow.! Another gigantic turtle turd! I dropped some banana and mango near the pan. He climbed out and started eating ravenously. “Oh my gosh” I thought, “the poor old boy wasn’t eating because he was constipated!”
Even though I put out fresh food daily, he preferred to eat grass and most of my basil, romaine and parsley. I imagine he supplemented this with slugs and earthworms when he could find them. The duck’s wing healed and was released and the old turtle seemed to enjoy the peace of the herb garden.
Now I faced a dilemma. Summer was drawing to a close and I had to figure out what to do with him next. Land turtles spend years building an internal map of their territory. For a wood turtle, this can encompass about 2 to 3 square miles. This territory usually includes a stream for soaking and hunting and a larger body of water to breed and hibernate in. They dig deep down into the mud to spend the long winter. He faced two problems. One, he had no map of his territory. Two, how could he dig down into the mud with no claws? I debated releasing him and letting nature take its course, but he’s an old man and a gentleman at that. Most wood turtles I have experienced have been a bit on the nasty side and would rather bite you as look at you. This old man is gentle and inquisitive and responds when I approach him. Perhaps he was someone’s peat at one time. Maybe he was in some sort of concrete enclosure and that’s how he lost his claws. Maybe he suffered frostbite. I don’t know. I DO know that this old man deserves to live what life he has left with dignity and comfort.
He will winter with me. If the greenhouse were finished, I’d let him sleep the winter in there, but it’s not, so I did the next best thing. I built him a tropical paradise. It’s about three feet by four and takes up the entire window shelf in my studio. It has plants from the herb garden and some succulents which he promptly dug up and rearranged, it has rich loam and clean sand with a light for basking. His food dish sits next to his bathing pan, so he can empty and refill with ease. He seems to like it, but again refused to eat. I started to worry. I got out the fruit fly bait again. He ignored it, though the cat seems to enjoy watching the cloud of fruit flies swarming over it. Then I found a dry pelleted food for tortoises that smells like Fruit Loops. I thought I’d give it a try.
I dropped some colorful nuggets in the dish tonight and he climbed out of his water pan. He nudged one with his nose. Within the space of 5 minutes, every piece was gone. He even freshened his breath with a bit of parsley. He is content. I am content.
It seems that in a time where nothing seems to be going right, in a time of grief and sorrow, at the most frantic period of the year preparing for winter…all it takes is a silly old turtle eating what looks like Fruit Loops.
It’s good. It’s all good. Everything in its own time. We are both survivors.

Leave a Reply