Jim and Shelly, his “foster turtle,” have something in common. They both move slowly, but they do meet their deadlines. (Photo by Z. Schulz)

Jim and Shelly, his “foster turtle,” have something in common. They both move slowly, but they do meet their deadlines. (Photo by Z. Schulz)

by Jim Harris

A school around the corner was moving to a new location, and employees were not allowed to bring “personal effects.” Knowing that my family and I were suckers, er, I mean animal lovers, a teacher asked if we would mind “fostering” her class’ turtle until a new home could be found.

For you people out there who are not fluent in animal-speak, the term “foster” roughly translates to “Once this animal sets foot in your home, you’re stuck with it for the rest of its natural-born life.” Well, once my son, who is 14, heard the word “turtle,” there was no turning back, so I had to agree to the somewhat one-sided deal. After all, he’d been begging me for a “bearded dragon” for years. I figured that a small, lethargic turtle had to be easier to care for than something that sounded like a creature from a Harry Potter novel.

So just last month we welcomed Shelly, an 8-year-old red-eared slider, into our home. The first thing I noticed was that she was neither small nor lethargic. She was quick, with a powerful bite (ouch!) and lots of energy. Next, I noticed that parts of her shell were falling off. I worried that pretty soon she wouldn’t be very “shelly” at all, so I went to Petco with a bunch of questions.

My son kept asking the store guy questions about a turtle’s “social life.” It depressed me to think that a turtle would have a social life while I don’t, but then I remembered that I don’t WANT a social life. Anyway, I was more concerned with keeping the turtle alive than keeping her entertained, and I found out that Shelly was lacking in a number of things important to well being. She needed a bigger (40-gallon) aquarium, a basking lamp (to avoid shell rot), a “dock” on which to escape the water and bask, an ultraviolet light (for vitamin D), and a water-testing kit to determine pH balance as well as nitrate/nitrite levels.

We were also instructed not to put her tank in direct sunlight or near a heater, as it creates algae, and not to line the bottom with fish tank gravel, as she might mistake the tiny granules for food and eat them. Instead, we had to buy “aquatic turtle gravel” (i.e. a bag o’ rocks) at $20 a bag. We were told to change water filters every other week and 10% of her tank water weekly. Her diet was to be 50% vegetables and water plants, 25% percent commercial foods and 25% live protein. Oh, and since all turtles can carry salmonella, hand-washing is a must (for us, not for the turtle).

At this point, I asked the nice pet store man if I could take Shelly down to the Wissahickon Creek and let her go. Frowning, he informed me that this would be both ecologically and morally unconscionable. Thus thoroughly shamed, I “shelled” out the several hundred dollars required to build a turtle paradise, and headed home.

Shelly was thrilled to be in her new environment. She flew around rearranging rocks and plants, exploring her new hiding cave and basking happily on her dock. Her joy was palpable and contagious. Now my son even takes time away from his infernal video devices to just watch Shelly frolic. When he’s off at school, I also sit by her aquarium and take pleasure in the beauty of nature. It’s way better than watching TV.

The one downside is the fact that I’ll never get to see Shelly grow old, although she will get to see ME grow old, because she will most likely outlive me and all my worldly possessions. I can see my obituary now: “James M. Harris, peacefully, in his sleep. Aged 119. Survived by Shelly the turtle. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, if someone could foster Shelly for just a few weeks until a new home can be found, it would be greatly appreciated.”

I’ve been told that some pet turtles can live well into their 80s, and even longer in the wild. With life spans like that, it seems like THEY should be keeping US as pets. In fact, seeing as how they’re also prehistoric, they should probably have developed an advanced civilization by now. Hmmm, maybe they have. I think I’ll go watch the turtle for a while.

  • Lana Williams

    Thanks a lot for this inspiring post! You have a very kind heart and it’s great that you agreed to take care of Shelly. Of course, I understand and agree that taking care of some animals can be expensive. However, taking care of Shelly made you and your family members so happy! Spending a few hundred dollars or even using a loan lending website is definitely worth it. Thus, if you have a choice to take care of an animal or no, it’s always better to say “yes”. You will not only learn something new, but gain a precious experience.