Forming a Bond With a Wild Box Turtle

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Commentator Julie Zickefoose has had a decade-long relationship with a wild box turtle, and the rare opportunity to forge a connection with it.


We might try to figure out why animals behave as they do. We might try and give up. But not commentator Julie Zickefoose. She thinks she has some idea of what's going on in the mind of one of her four footed neighbors.

JULIE ZICKEFOOSE: You see them along the highway waiting, heads held high, looking for an opening in the endless traffic. They're going to try to crawl across two, maybe eight lanes - and you know they're probably going to lose. Very few box turtles win an argument with a radial tire.

One old male box turtle was brought to my friend Dave with his shell and several pieces after one such attempt. But he was alert and lively, and Dave, a biology professor, tricky and turtle fan named him after an alien and decided to give him a second chance. That was the fall of 1995. Dave worked on Narot for two years, drilling holes in the broken shell pieces, pulling it back together, soaking him in disinfectant to fight infection.

Narot was not a good patient. Twice, he climbed out of his tank and crashed to the floor, re-breaking his shell. He contracted pneumonia and nearly died. Dave couldn't find a veterinarian who'd look at him. So he found some injectible antibiotics at a feed store, read the dose for a 200-pound calf and figured backwards for a one pound box turtle.

By the spring of 1998, Narot was finally healthy and ready for release. Dave brought him to me. We've got about 258 acres of contiguous woodland around our place, probably enough to keep even an adventurer like Narot off the highway. Narot never looked back when I opened the front door and set him free. He plotted purposefully across the lawn, heading for the springtime woods as if he knew exactly where he was going.

That same fall, I found Narot hunkered down in my horseradish patch when I went down to dig a root for some relish. I recognized them instantly by the cracks and drill holes in the shell. I brought him into the kitchen, fixed him a plate of fruit and worms and watched him dig in to his meal. I tucked him back into hoarse radish patch and told him to look me up again sometime.

I didn't see Narot again until May 1999, when he turned up outside the front door, peering expectantly in to the foyer window. I fixed a plate for him and introduced him to a young female box turtle I'd been carrying for who was ready for release. It wasn't long before they were making more turtles.

It's been nine years since Narot was first released here. He visited us again last fall. His eyes were bright. His shell was healed and he was hungry as usual. I'm more delighted to see him with each passing year. We can't know what goes on in the mind of a box turtle, and I know it's not fashionable to ascribe any human traits to a reptile. But it's clear that after a decade of contact with people, Narot has figured out where his chef and procurer lives and how to get her attention.

To me, he's more than a little box of instinct and reflex. He's my neighbor.

BLOCK: Artist and writer Julie Zickefoose keeps an eye out for box turtles and in the fall and she's always ready with a dish of fruit and worms. Her book of essays and illustrations is titled “Letters from Eden”.

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