Nature Nearby: Interview with a box turtle

Photo courtsey of the Associated Press/Carolyn Kaster

BY FRED SEITZ — I was walking in Magruder Park on a mild fall day when I encountered a park resident that I and my various dogs have repeatedly encountered for at least the past 20 years: an Eastern box turtle, who I have presumptively named Ralph. Although several of my dogs, including my current one, have helped me locate Ralph’s well-camouflaged self by grasping him in their jaws, I have successfully freed him on each occasion. Though I seriously doubt that Ralph relished the dog’s greetings on this recent encounter, he kindly waited for me to take my dog home and return for a short interview. Indeed, it was interesting to note that the interview location was about 15 yards from where the initial encounter had occurred only a few minutes before.  

Ralph’s head was only partially protruding from his shell (perhaps cautious of a known dog associate), but he did not retreat and even allowed me to ask him a few questions.

Fred: I have seen you in this park for over 20 years; about how old are you?

Ralph: Well, obviously, I’m over 20, and my family usually lives from 50 to 75 years, though my Great Uncle Charlie lived to over 130.

Fred: That’s incredible! How do you manage such a long life and healthy demeanor?

Ralph: Well, shielding myself in my shell from offensive folks like dogs, foxes, hawks and other would-be predators helps, but those heavy metal machines you all drive push the envelope (and my hinged carapace) to the limit.

I eat a healthy diet of organic insects, mushrooms (the kind that would make you sick), and, of course, slugs. I enjoy blackberries, blueberries and May apples, as well. In fact, I’m the only one who actually disperses the May apple seeds. Those other moochers (birds and squirrels) will eat the fruit and the seeds without actually dispersing them. I also munch on some dead critters, including frogs and lizards. You might say I do a bit of scavenging on the side. And I  get plenty of rest when the winter chill approaches. My underground bungalow, which is about 8 inches deep, is a pretty good insulator.

Fred: Can you tell me a little about your family?

Ralph: I don’t like to brag, but at my age, let me say there have been several great women in my life, and you know what they say about men in springtime. When a pretty shell comes my way, it’s kind of hard not to notice, so circling around her with a few nips on her carapace may lead to a wild afternoon. Truth be told, if another pretty shell with big brown eyes (notice that mine are reddish orange) comes by that same spring, even us old guys feel the call again.

Fred: Well, do you help out around the house?

Ralph: That there nest digging and egg burying is women’s work, son. After all, she’s bigger than me; why shouldn’t she do the heavy lifting?

You may think I’m kinda cavalier about this whole family business, but it seems like half of the herons, snakes, frogs, muskrats and whatever else passes by will dig up the eggs and eat them or snatch my youngins soon after they hatch out of their eggs. It’s a tough life for the little guys.

It doesn’t end there either; for years, you folks have been catching me and my kin and treating us like pets. Think what that does to our self-esteem, our lifestyle and our hydration.

Remember, my forebears made it through those same tough times that did in those big brutish dinosaurs, and we’re still here. Okay, so it wasn’t a direct relative of mine that bid T-Rex goodbye, but we’ve been around for nearly 15 million years; can you say the same?

I will say that the folks in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas and Missouri have named us their state reptiles. That North Carolina secretary of state also made the observation that we box turtles watch undisturbed as generations of faster hares run by to quick oblivion. We are indeed a model of patience for humanity.