Turtle Liberations by Penelope Anne Cole


Maybe you remember the plastic turtle “homes” from the pet store ages ago. I remember them. It was either a round or oval shaped clear plastic bowl-type home for pet store turtles. It had a place for turtle food and water, a ramp to crawl down to a moat-like swimming circle. It even had a plastic palm tree for a bit of foliage. I don’t know if each of us three kids had our own painted turtle or we just shared one. I doubt any of the many turtles back then were happy in their clear plastic bowl homes. I doubt they lived long and prospered.

Then some forty years later, our next door neighbor had a couple of turtle tanks full of small turtles. I liberated two of them for my daughter. Yes, I got two so they wouldn’t be lonely. These two were hand-sized turtles, not the half dollar pet-store size. This time, I determined to do a better job for our turtles than the plastic containers of years gone by. I got a nice, big tank for Skittles and Bittles, as my daughter named them!

I even got an attractive pedestal for the tank. Then filled the tank about one third full of water and found several flat rocks to make a platform for the turtles to climb out to sun themselves in the reptile lamp light. I got the correct turtle food and they were all set up.

But the tank got dirty real fast. So I cleaned it, which meant taking everything out. First the turtles, then the rocks, then I emptied the water and scrubbed and rinsed the tank. I re-filled it, replaced the rocks, and set up the lamp. Meanwhile, Skittles and Bittles were swimming around in the kitchen sink. They were okay there, but seemed crowded in the smaller space. I put the turtles back in their tank, but for the next week’s cleaning, I decided to put them in the bathtub. They really liked it there—lots of room to swim around.

Each week after that Skittles and Bittles went into the tub, rocks and all, while I cleaned their poopy tank. Then it dawned on me—they eat and then they poop. Such a concept! What if I feed them in the tub while I’m cleaning their tank? Then they’ll poop in the tub—which is much easier to clean than the tank. And maybe, just maybe, their tank would stay cleaner longer.

So I tried that and yes, the tank did stay cleaner longer. Yay! I didn’t have to clean the tank quite as often, but it was still an additional chore that I had taken on at the request of my daughter. As a single mother, I wanted my daughter to have pets. But we already had two cats and two dogs. We really didn’t need two turtles. They weren’t soft and cuddly. They didn’t stir me to go walking. They didn’t do tricks or come on command. Oh, it was entertaining to watch them swimming around and basking on their rocks. I cared that they lived. Though, more and more, I came to believe that Skittles and Bittles were imprisoned in their tank—not their true habitat. I was also enslaved as their caretaker. I felt guilty depriving them of a natural outdoor life. And I felt guilty about those feelings. So I started to plot and plan for the end of our mutual enslavement.

I had noticed the middle school where I walked my dogs was enlarging their Nature Center to include a large pond. I had an “Aha” moment. Maybe their nature pond needed a couple of turtles? My daughter was still in elementary school and had gone on field trips to the nature center. We decided to ask the nature center director if we could re-home our turtles there. He said yes. He already had a couple of turtles, but he would take ours, too. I set up an appointment and went home. There’s not much to do to prepare turtles for moving to their new home. We put them in the cat carrier, because it had a handle, and drove the two blocks to the school after classes ended.

We followed Mr. Brian with our turtles to the pond. There were actually two ponds. Mr. Brian thought the deeper pond would be best for them since it had logs for sunning and lots of natural food. We knelt down and put the first turtle in the water. Skittles immediately dove down and was gone in seconds. Then we released Bittles. He started swimming out on the surface of the water then turned to look at us—almost as if to say goodbye and thank you. Then he too dove under water, gone from sight.

We waited at the edge of the pond for a few moments, hoping to catch a glimpse of our turtles enjoying their new home and freedom. But we didn’t see them again. They were free and wild now. They weren’t ours—they belonged to nature now. We were quiet on the drive home. It was a one of those happy, sad days. I put the turtle tank on the street with a “free” sign. From time to time, we’d watch the Nature Center Cams to look for Skittles and Bittles and wish them the best in their new, free life. On the Nature Center website there’s a picture of a turtle lounging on a log—is it Skittles or Bittles?


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