The wood turtle Bob.

I am worried about Bob. Bob is a wood turtle that came to me two years ago with a badly fractured shell. A DNR officer had seen a young woman driving while talking on her phone. She never even attempted to miss him, even though there was room. He pulled her over, but was unable to ticket her for distracted driving. In his frustration, he made her find the turtle at the edge of the road and see the damage she had done.
I’ll never know if it impressed her or not, but it did the officer. Even though one side of the shell was broken on both top and bottom and there was considerable blood, the turtle stretched out his head and looked the officer dead in the eye. He decided then and there that he wanted to try and save him.

When he arrived here, I had my doubts. Once the inner membrane of the shell is breached, bacteria enters and the turtle usually does not make it. As I examined him, the turtle gave me the same look. Not afraid, not suffering, just interested in me. On closer inspection I noticed that he had no toes on his front feet. No claws, no toes. There were only well healed stumps.

I’ve only seen that once before in a tortoise that someone kept in a drained cement swimming pool. The turtle spent an unknowable length of time trying to climb it’s way out and literally wore off his toes.

Now a captive tortoise with no toes is one thing, but in a wild turtle, no front toes would not allow him to dig down in the forest floor or mud and hibernate. So between the lack of toes and his unusually calm demeanor (Something I have NEVER seen in a wood turtle) I assume that he had been captive and either escaped or been dumped in the wild.

Even more convincing, was that he was found in an area with neither wood nor water. Being semi aquatic, wood turtles live near streams or shallow rivers, never venturing more than a quarter of a mile from this water source. Turtles, especially land turtles, establish an internal map of their territory. Once removed to a new one, they may spend years wandering aimlessly seeking the familiar. I never encourage anyone to relocate land turtles in the wild for this very reason.

All of this added together, brought about a heavy sigh. If the turtle did survive, he would be with me forever. By all
appearances, I put is age somewhere between 20 and 35 years. In the wood turtle world, that’s an old man. The average lifespan is about 40 (up to 58 in captivity). I figured this old man had already suffered enough bad breaks and could spend his remaining years in whatever relative comfort I could provide.

So after letting him chill in the fridge over night, (it puts them in a torpid state and makes it easier to work on), I set about patching his shell. First I cleaned the wound with sterile saline, (pressurized contact lense solution does a great job). then I took bits of medical tape and did my bet to put the puzzle of pieces back in place. I used sticky plastic food wrap to cover the missing spots. Then I started coating the whole area with layers of auto undercoating and tissue paper.

Between layers, the turtle goes back in the fridge to dry. The undercoating has a strong smell, kind of like a cross between hot rubber bands and nail polish remover. It’s not real pleasant, especially in the refrigerator. It’s bad enough to open the door and see a turtle looking back at you, but then you add the smell and we usually eat out on turtle days.

Gradually, I built up enough layers for the shell to be stable, now what do I do with him? Well, you make a playpen on the ground in the herb garden. Believe it or not he thrived. He gorged on blackberries and blossoms, bugs and worms, even the occasional bit of fish or chicken was gone shortly after it was put in his reach.

Winter came and since he couldn’t dig down to hibernate, I brought him inside and dedicated space in my studio, for a four foot reptile palace of dirt and moss, with potted plants (which he ate and dug from their pots), a basking light and a shallow pool. All winter he consumed night crawlers and five dollar a can turtle food that smelled of apples and corn.

Once I made the mistake of putting a sparrow in his tank while I got out a cage. I came back to find the sparrow shrieking and Bob hanging on to it’s wing. It was his prize and he wasn’t going to give it up easily. I had to trade it for a bite of steak. I don’t think he ever really forgave me. Neither did the bird.

Spring came and we built a fence around the herb garden with a deeper pool and lots of mulch. There were spots to sun and places to hide and everyday when I called him to breakfast he would poke his head out from somewhere to see what I was offering. Summer passed and it was time to come in again.
The beginning of winter was good, every day he waited for his worms and treats, but lately, he seems off. I cleaned his water dish yesterday and when I picked it up, there were at least a dozen worms living under it. He doesn’t get as excited when I drop in fat blackberries or melon. Today, he simply watched his worms crawl under the water dish and sat under his light.
He seems lighter in weight and well…older His neck wrinkles and when he extends it, he looks like Mitch Mc Connell. (And Mitch Mc Connell is OLD-old)

Maybe that’s it. Maybe he is just winding down from old age. Maybe, like me, he longs for spring and sunshine and grass…instead of snow and cold. Maybe he’ll see another spring and perk up and have a happy summer…..maybe he won’t.
There is one thing I’m glad for. I’m glad that I gave Bob the chance to have a few happy years. I’m glad for the company in the long winters. He’s been easy to have around. You can’t say that about just any old turtle. Bob is a good boy.

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