April 19, 2004
What Can You Say About A Desert Tortoise?
That he devoured watermelon with a passion, until it literally spurted out of his nostrils? Or that he had absolutely no qualms about walking into any neighbor's house (if their door happened to be open) because I wasn't paying attention? That he would spend 2 hours desperately trying to make his way through the doggie door to get inside HIS house to find me? So, you ask, what can be said about such a strange creature? Well, there are many things that can be said of this particular desert tortoise, I assure you.
So Listen Up, Animal Lovers And Non-Believer's... And Meet Max.
I recall a time when I had just moved into a condo. It had a huge grassy common area outside my front door. I knew it would be his Disneyland, so I lifted all 30 pounds of him and gently set him down on the soft green grass so that he might snoop his new surroundings, and I then returned to my chore of unpacking. I checked on him every few minutes to make sure he was still in sight. They move slowly, these extraordinary creatures, but can be camoflauged within seconds should there be greenery around. Slick little fellows, these desert turtles, although this guy had a 16 inch shell, and was not so little. But that is neither here nor there.
I had great new neighbors. To my right were a gay couple who had lived together for years. Michael was a handsome psychologist and published author, and Bill the homemaker. Maggie lived to my left and was forever inspired and amazed at her new neighbor's unusual pet, and she grew to love him (she saved my parrot's life, but that's another story). Michael's partner Bill (to my right) was a hunky looking black man, who really wasn't into animals all that much. Have you ever heard a 35 year old man scream from fright? Wasn't MY fault he left his door wide open. He had been cooking pasta in his kitchen when he turned around and saw this huge, prehistoric-like monstrous turtle at his feet, silently looking up at him. I ran outside when I heard the scream, but I couldn't see Max anywhere. Suddenly Bill came running out in an apron, fork in hand, and had he not been a man of color, he'd have been white as a ghost. I don't think he appreciated my laughter, but hey, Max just wanted to introduce himself, ya know? Chill, dude. It's a turtle, for God's sakes.
This amazing tortoise at some point came from the desert, obviously. He had been in captivity for perhaps 35 years before he became a member of our family. His name was Max. He was, quite truthfully, a beautiful specimen of a desert tortoise, with a perfectly shaped shell and head. He weighed 30 pounds, and his shell measured 16 inches. He had been a family member for well over 30 years. We never really knew how old he was, but the odds are he was probably anywhere from 80 to 100 years old by the time he left us. Bear in mind, we are talking human years here. It is illegal to take a tortouise from the desert, and it is also illegal to place them back once they have been in captivity. Not that we ever considered such an option. We just, ya know, adored him.
When Max joined our family he belonged to my sister Carole and her husband Matt, who is this 6'4 macho kinda guy (now a retired CHP detective). I remember how moved I was when I would visit and see him gently stroking Max's underchin, his green tortoise eyes slowly closing in ecstasy and contentment. Seemed to me Max was as big as my then little neice, Souixsie (who, by the way, saved him several times from drowning in their pool). Gotta keep a steady eye on these special creatures!
When they moved to northern California, Max had to stay behind because a desert tortoise cannot survive that weather. My best friend Stephen took him for several years (after all, what the hell would I do with a damn turtle!). Stephen decided to move to New York and was adament about taking Max along, but I pleaded with him to leave the turtle with me, as he would never survive the cold climate there. He reluctantly agreed, and Max then became mine. He quickly learned the doggie igloo on the patio was his turtle bedroom and the huge backyard, his own private paradise. I just knew he would be a pain in the butt and require alot of attention but much to my surprise, I fell in love with him on the spot.
I also had a cocker spaniel named Chloe Louise, and Max would spend up to 2 hours trying to work his way into the house thru that flap in her doggie door. He barely fit , but by God he always plopped through it eventually. He was a handful, but he loved being inside when the mood suited him and would stop at nothing to get there. Desert tortoise's are very, very stubborn. He knew exactly which bedroom was mine and if my door was closed, he would bump it ruthlessly until I opened it for him. Max was a people charmer, as well. He loved to plant all 30 pounds of himself onto any foot available and would stay there for as long as they would tolerate it. He liked being part of the crowd, ya see... very social guy, my turtle Max.
I would walk him throughout the complex where I lived and he would follow my every move, unless there was a dandelion or hybiscus nearby. I loved him so much, and people were sometimes taken aback when I held him up and kissed the top of his ever so curious head. Max was treated with love and respect all the years I had him. People would say they never knew turtles had "personalities" until, of course, they met Max. He sighed and moaned a little when he was content, and he would whine if I put him into his igloo too early. He would bump and pound the sliding door from the patio outside my room at any given time of day because he knew I could never ignor his wishes. There were times he tried so desperately to get inside, he would topple over onto his back (not a pretty picture). He didn't care that it irritated me because he knew I was a pushover, and would always grant him entry.
When summer arrived, I would take Popeye (my parrot) out to the lawn and place him on Max's back. They would cruise like that, and I would give Popeye a daisey to nibble on. It wasn't done for attention, but because they both instinctively loved to be outside so how could I possibly deny them that? Neighbor's alike would gather around in amazement. I regret not taking a photograph of this, but the memory will always be there. He aggravated the hell out of me however, when I would lay out on the patio to tan. It was just an impossible task. Max would eye me from behind the palm tree, then slowly make his way forth and try to climb on me (nuttin' sexual, he just HAD to have my undivided attention). Grrrr...
Max was a laid back kinda guy, and very spoiled. I fed him daily by hand each afternoon... a platter filled with romaine lettuce, fresh corn, peas, sliced apple, banana, broccoli, grapes and asparagus, with red hybiscus and melon for desert. He was a positive glutton. I missed him terribly when he hybernated each October, and it was always a joy to see him peek from behind the door of the closet, and then slowly make his way out as April approached. He was such a character.
I once placed an oblong mirror lengthwise against the patio wall, and he stared at his image for 8 hours straight, until I shoved him into his straw filled igloo at sunset. He thought it was his kindred female soulmate, of this I am certain. That went on for weeks. He refused to eat. All he would do is stare into that damn mirror, day after day. So I decided to get him a girlfriend. Her name was Tulip, and he adored her. She was only a garden statuary from Home Depot (ssh), but he didn't know that, and didn't seem to mind that she never once responded. He didn't even care that she may be frigid. She was HIS, and Max was in love. He would sometimes fall asleep resting his head on her shell (she was a little thing, ya see). When he felt amorous, he would actually mount her. I never had the heart to tell him she was plaster.
Max died early this morning as I caressed his shell. He had a virus again, but the anti-biotics weren't working this time. He was in the hall closet with a heat lamp, and it smelled of death. I knew it wouldn't be long. I checked him every 30 minutes or so, and at 1:30 a.m., God decided to take Max for himself. I was resting my head on his warm back softly stroking his smooth front legs, and I cried tears that fell softly upon that flawless, heavy shell he carried with him for so many years. Suddenly his back legs stretched out lazily, as if he were basking in the sun he had coveted for so long. I kissed his head, heard him softly sigh, and then retract into his protective shell. He was gone, just like that. I stayed in that closet for an hour and cried while I continued rubbing his shell and legs. I kept thinking this must be a mistake, and perhaps if I rubbed his shell long enough I would see movement and feel him come back to life. I bargained with God and said a prayer. Now, I know this must seem quite neurotic to some, but for those of you who understand... well, you are as special as Max was. But my bargaining fell on deaf ears, and my precious Max silently slipped away from me forever...
So, what can one say about a turtle?
Well, you might say he was a beloved member of my family, a trooper who fought hard to live until his last dying breath, a hard shelled creature with personality beyond belief, and a brave old soul who brightened so many of our live's by his very existance. God bless you, my sweet Max. You are in my heart forever, and I will never forget you.
I Loved You Well, And You Gave So Many Of Us A Joy We Never Expected From A Tortoise.