The Box Turtle Diaries

I love my job. There is always something new to see, to do, to learn.  Every single day holds its moment of inherent wonder, and I hope I never lose that.

We hatch a lot of things at the zoo. Just click the “Tortoises and Turtles” tab at the top of the page if you want to see what I’ve been working with for the last three-and-a-half years. In my time, I’ve helped with the rearing of dozens of Malagasy tortoises. Today, I’ve added something new.

Back in the summer, I was in the process of closing up at the end of the day when I passed our outdoor turtle marsh and saw this:

What. You don't see it?

What. You don’t see it?

 

It’s a nest. Turtles and tortoises cover their nests really well to protect them from predators. Here’s my confession. The only way I knew it was there was because I saw Mom digging it earlier and noted the spot. The culprit was one of these:

Florida box turtle. Terrepene carolina bauri

Florida box turtle. Terrepene carolina bauri.

 

The next morning, I talked to the lead keeper. Not only was he supportive of me retrieving the eggs, he thought it would be a good experience for me to raise any offspring as well. Score! I was really pleased. The last thing I hatched on my own was a clutch of five-line skinks. That’s a cool story I’ll tell you one day. I have almost no experience with juvenile turtles, and I wanted to change that.

It didn’t take long to excavate the nest. In it, I found three eggs. Box turtle clutches average 5-8 eggs and females will lay multiple clutches in a season. I set them up in a bed of vermiculite mixed with an equal weight of water and hid them away in a secret location. And I waited. And waited. It takes anywhere from 2-4 months to hatch out a box turtle, depending on incubation temperature.

Within a few days, one egg had collapsed completely. I kept it for a while because once before, I had seen an oddly-shaped egg hatch successfully. When this one grew hair, though, I threw it out. A few weeks later, I candled the remaining eggs and saw blood vessels, a sign that the eggs were fertile. A few more weeks passed, and another egg began to indent. It, too, was bad. I candled the last egg and no longer saw blood vessels. Or anything at all. Rather than showing an embryo waving about in there, the egg was completely opaque. I haven’t given up on it yet, but it doesn’t look good. Win some, lose some.

All is not lost, however. A few weeks ago, I was out by the turtle marsh again and noted an Eastern box turtle behaving strangely. She was staring at the ground, neck craned, as if she saw something very interesting. Or tasty. I moved her aside, dug in the dirt, and look who I found! Click to enlarge.

Then, there was another. And another. The final total is four baby Eastern box turtles – Terrepene carolina carolina. They’re about the size of a quarter, but you’ll have to take my word for it. I never have change to prove it. My boss gave me permission not only to raise them, but to set up a whole exhibit for them. He didn’t have to say it twice!

Look closely to see the baby box turtle in the front.

Look closely to see the baby box turtle to the left of the fern in the front. See his yellow dotted keels?

 

The turtles are doing very well, and I get to channel my inner six-year-old and go out weekly to dig up worms and isopods for their dining pleasure.

The building these animals are housed in is part of our hibernaculum. Temperatures are gradually adjusted downward, and the turtles will soon do what they were designed to do – dig a hole in which to spend their winter. Before they are tucked in bed for the cold season, though, I will share more images with you. Because they are too cute not to! Soon. Very soon.

I Told You So

As my husband will attest, I am warm-natured. After nearly 20 years of marriage, we have yet to call a truce in the Fan Wars. If it’s 50 degrees outside, my bedroom window is open. A night at a sweltering 75 degrees is just miserable for everyone. Mostly because I whine a lot when I’m overheated. But women are perplexing creatures. *** I am a mystery inside an enigma, wrapped in 1000 percale sheets. Because regardless of the temperature, I cannot sleep without covers of some kind.

This habit is ingrained from my earliest years, as are most of my quirks. At some point, I came to believe that whatever is left uncovered is fair game for hungry monsters. Sometimes superstitions are simply relics of childhood. Sometimes they’re based on fact. Turns out, my conviction is true.

Two nights ago, I was awakened suddenly. Having broken my cardinal bedtime rule, I lay sheetless and exposed in the darkness. And I felt teeth in my bare feet. My heart lurched. Something is eating my feet! EATING MY FEET! All those years of carefully covering myself was not superstition at all! The monsters WILL get you if you aren’t careful! Goodbye, cruel world! I whispered my last will and testament to the universe. Then I recognized the identity of my assailant. It was this girl.

Yeah, she's cute when she's sleeping. Too bad she only does that about 15 minutes a night.

Yeah, she’s cute when she’s sleeping. Too bad she only does that about 15 minutes a night.

 

She started on my toes, then moved up to my ankle, then my calf. Finally I dumped her sad, sorry behind out of the bedroom and went back to bed feeling somewhat vindicated. “See, I told my sleeping husband (oh, he wasn’t really sleeping. It’s hard to sleep when your wife is flailing about like a goldfish on a dusty carpet. He was totally faking.) This is why I cover up. Things will eat me.”

The wily little minx slithered back into game-time central when I got up to go to the bathroom, and I was awakened a couple of hours later by a psychotic animal bicycling my head. Uncovered = eaten by monsters. The monster = Pixel = Pixel is a monster. It’s a good thing she’s cute.

Today’s my day off, and I’m going shopping. I wonder where I can find chain-mail sheets and a helmet.

 

***So are men, actually. Frankly, people are just weird.

Work Excuse Number 637: Why I Was Late For Lunch

So, there was this 600lb tortoise sitting on the hose.

Thanks, buddy. I don't need to spread that hay or anything.

Thanks, buddy. I don’t need to spread that hay or anything.

Parked like a VW Beetle on the bale of hay I’m trying to spread.

Attaboy, pal.

Attaboy, pal.

I asked him to move. I asked nice. He said no.

"What you lookin' at?"

“What you lookin’ at?”

What could I do?

Incidentally, this is reason 1,234 why I love my job.

Let’s Go Over This Again

With my new job, school starting, and all the many and varied changes that feel like have hit all at once, we’ve gotten all loosey-goosey on the home front. I thought this would be a good time to go over the house rules again.

 

  1. Night time is for sleeping. If you wake up and get lonely, it’s not the time to haul out all your toys.
  2. In keeping with #1, night time is not the time to come hang with your parents. They are tired. Try lying in your bed and thinking about how much nicer Mommy and Daddy are when they’ve had a good night’s sleep.
  3. Should you find yourself unable to sleep and need to find Mom and Dad, choose a parent and take the most direct route to them. Do not drag yourself over the face of one in order to get to the other. To do so is disruptive and unnecessary.
  4. Laundry baskets are for laundry. They are not toy boxes, cages, or (and I cannot stress this point enough) emergency toilets.
  5. Mommy’s bras are Mommy’s alone. They are not for playing with.
  6. Although we may play games on the laptop sometimes, the computer itself is not a toy. It is not to be used as a step-stool or springboard.
  7. Sometimes sneezes catch us by surprise. I understand. That being said, try not to aim at Mommy’s face. The same can be said for gas and other gastrointestinal disturbances.
  8. If you do not like the food that is served, just don’t eat it. It’s not necessary to spit it back into your bowl and make loud hacking sounds.
  9. My food is just that - my food. Sneezing on it or touching it in any way does not give you dibs.

I sure hope you’re listening. I’m talking to you!

Are you listening, Pixel? I do not feel like you are listening.

Are you listening, Pixel? I do not feel like you are listening.

Come In For the Cute, Hang Around to Save a Species

Introducing Astrochelys radiata- the second one ever hatched by our zoo

Introducing Astrochelys radiata- the second one ever hatched by our zoo

See? Cute! Now, keep reading. You have the power to help save these guys.

Chances are, you didn’t know that sports could help save a critically endangered species. When we hear about an animal rapidly becoming extinct, our first thought is to wonder what we can do about it. Sometimes, there’s not a simple answer. Take the Radiated Tortoise, for example.

Astrochelys radiata, endemic to the island of Madagascar, is experiencing a dizzying population decline. In the last 10 years, numbers in the wild are thought to have dropped by half. The animals are being collected illegally for both the pet trade and for human consumption. This video explains  that the tortoises are not being consumed by those who are starving; they are a luxury item on restaurant menus in other parts of the world.  The assistance of local villagers is critical to saving this species, but there’s a catch.

In the villages around the spiny forests where these tortoises live, it is taboo to touch one of these animals or even to look at them. They believe that Radiated Tortoises are the reincarnation of their ancestors, and though they are not directly involved in the poaching, neither have they been in a position to stop it. This is changing. Through partnership with the Turtle Survival Alliance (go ahead – click the link and sign up for their free newsletter. It’s fascinating! Even better, go join!) villagers are beginning to take an active role in the survival of this species. TSA has helped build schools for villages who agree to help the tortoises. And now there’s a new opportunity.

Utah’s Hogle Zoo, in  partnership with Turtle Survival Alliance and Conservation Fusion, have come up with a wonderful and positive way to help both tortoises and kids. Through the Give Balls program, this partnership hopes to donate 250 One World Futbols, a ball that is designed specifically for the rugged terrain of rural villages and never deflates or needs pumping, to 10 villages in southern Madagascar. Through donation of the balls and other sports equipment, in addition to environmental education, it is hoped that the village youth will be inspired and empowered to protect the species that is sacred to them.

To donate a ball for $25, click here. There’s even a fun option to buy one, give one for only $39. For every ball donated, One World Futbol will donate an additional $5 to purchase uniforms and other equipment for the villages.

If you can’t donate at this time, you can still help. Share this post, or even write one of your own, to help raise awareness of this fabulous program. I know everyone’s dumping ice over their heads right now, but I think we can share the donation love a little. A goal of 250 balls is a modest one. Let’s help Hogle Zoo blow this goal out of the water!

Help kids to be kids while at the same time helping to save a species.

 

If the links don’t work, try clicking here. http://www.oneworldfutbol.com/campaigns/hogle-zoo or pasting it in your browser.

 

So Here’s How It Happened

I must apologize for my last post. It left people hanging. It’s my fault. I haven’t blogged in a couple of weeks, and the new editor from WordPress was a little harder to use than I expected. I refused to switch back to the “classic” (read: “for those too old to adapt to the changing times”) editor, the post went live prematurely, and some of the changes I thought I had made weren’t saved. The post was a little confusing and incomplete. Let me fill in the blanks.

Go back in time with me 19 years, when times were simpler. Gas cost a mere $1 a gallon***, and only rich people had cell phones. My husband of two months and I went out to Carter caves in eastern KY to spend some time together before I began my last semester of college. We were early for our tour, so we took of to explore the woods. We had wandered probably a mile down the trail when we heard screaming.  It took us a moment to realize it was a cat, and probably a small one. I dug through the underbrush to try to find the source of the sound. The volume of the cries were in keeping with those of an animal with a limb caught in a trap. I found the little critter, all giant belly and eyeballs. She was not injured in any way. Her calls were a terrified version of “Marco Polo,” and once she clapped those luminous eyes on us, she wasn’t about to let us go. She followed us out of the woods, crying the whole way, begging to be carried. It was when we turned and saw this tiny kitten braving a running stream to keep up that we relented and picked her up.

Eight months ago, we said goodbye to that waif, having shared lives and home for over eighteen years. Eighteen years sometimes just aren’t enough.

My old friend

My old friend

I never thought I’d have another kitten. They’re troublesome little creatures. I can’t count the number of times I had to leave the bathtub to pull Piper off the living room drapes, and if I had a quarter for every plant our cats knocked off/turned over/peed in, I’d be a rich woman indeed. And there are plenty of adult cats who need homes.

So imagine my surprise when I felt a sudden urge to look at kittens on Craigslist. Two clicks later, I found myself looking at the most arresting face. Within minutes, I fired off an email to the rescue group’s contact person. She responded almost immediately. I asked a few more questions, and my heart sank when I got the response. The kitten was slated to make an appearance at an adoption event the following day, during hours I had to work.

There are other kittens in the world, I said to myself. And besides, it’s not a decision for me alone. I emailed my husband and included a photo of the kitten. Piper’s death hit him just as hard as it hit me, and to bring home another tiny tuxedo without consent would be wrong. I hit “send” and waited. And waited. I saw him check his email. And he was quiet for a long time. Finally, he closed the computer and left to go run some errands. I had to go to bed early, and he was still asleep when I left for work.  We never got to talk about it. Oh, well. It was never my cat. Never mine.

I thought about the kitten at work all the next day. I couldn’t get her out of my mind. Not my cat. Not mine. Never was. I tried to put the whole notion out of my head. Not my cat.

I came home that evening. She was sitting on my bed like she owned the place. My husband had gone to the adoption event just about as soon as they opened to pick her up. She’s my cat now. Always will be. She’s mine. She’s my Pixel.

Pixel. Forever mine.

Pixel. Forever Mine.

 

 

*** I can’t vouch for the veracity of that statement. I just know that when old people tell me stories, they usually reference the price of gas somewhere.

The Thing I Said I’d Never Do Again? I Did.

I swore I was done. Finished. No more for me, thank you very much. I was wrong.

I thought I was ready for all of the changes headed my way; Squish starting kindergarten, the Padawan hitting middle school, and the Girl-child commencing her senior year of high school. For the first time in my life, all my children are school-age. We have freedom I haven’t known in nearly two decades, and I’ve been so looking forward to it.

So why have I spent the last few weeks mired in suffocating grief? Squish feels like he’s been five forever. I’m ready for him to grow up a little more. And we’ve been hanging on by our toenails, trying to help the Padawan survive a disappointing elementary school experience, counting down the days until he transferred to the stellar middle school. We’re there now. And it doesn’t feel as good as I hoped it would.

I’ve gotten a little weird, a little obsessive, pouring over family photo albums and baby books. But even as I chuckle over double-chins and gap-toothed grins, I grieve. I’m astounded that those oh, so familiar faces on the scrapbook page stare back at me like strangers. Who are these babies? I barely remember them. Time plays its paradoxical trick; babyhood seems at the same time yesterday and a thousand years ago.

I didn’t expect to feel this way. I thought I would celebrate our new status up one side and down the other, and I do. But I cannot deny the wistfulness. Sometimes in our grief, we do unexpected things. And I did.

I thought it was all behind me; the nights of broken sleep and all that good stuff. But we’re starting over again.

 

 

 

pixel

 

Proud big brother

Proud big brother

How to Raise Gun-Free Boys

When my husband and I first started talking about having children almost two decades ago, one of our concerns was the pervasive violence in our culture. Seeing boys barely old enough to write their names pretending to blow one another up was troubling, and we decided our kids were going to be different. We didn’t buy in to gender stereotypes. Kids are blank slates. We were going to raise our boys to be peaceful. We’re seventeen years into this parenting gig. Twelve of those years have been spent raising boys, and I’ve worked with hundreds of children aged preschool to high school, so I do have at least some experience when I offer this advice.

To raise gun-free boys:

  1. Teach them new meanings to common behaviors. Children naturally extend thumb and forefinger. Teach them it’s an “L” for “Love.” If that doesn’t work, I recommend gluing their thumbs and forefingers together.
  2. Monitor their television consumption. Weapons are everywhere on TV today, so screen time must be regulated. I recommend no more than fifteen minutes a day in ten second intervals. Choose shows carefully. We limit our boys to Thigh Master infomercials and reruns of Care Bears.
  3. Monitor their video games. Violence in video games is ubiquitous. Studies have shown that video games can skew perceptions of what is acceptable behavior.  Minecraft was shown the door, for example, when our boys began punching actual trees.  Stick with Reader Rabbit.
  4. Choose good playmates. Kids are easily influenced by their peers. I suggest never letting them play with actual children. A mirror is a reasonable substitute. Animals, preferably those without opposable thumbs, are a decent choice. Store mannequins are also acceptable.
  5. Choose toys carefully. No Nerf guns, of course.  I also recommend never letting them touch things that may to their eyes look like a gun. These items include, but are not limited to: coat-hangers, Lego bricks, sticks, high heeled shoes, kitchen implements, brooms, and, interestingly, a Thigh Master.
  6. Aim for early orthodontics. Namely headgear. If their lips can’t meet, they can’t make shooting noises. Little known fact – Little Willy Wonka didn’t have dental issues – his dad got tired of hearing him say “Pow! Pow! Pow!”
They can's say "POW!" if their lips don't meet. Use physiology to your advantage!

Use physiology to your advantage! Studies show kids in such headgear are also happier, too. They’re always smiling.

 

 

Stay tuned for the next in the series : Teaching kids that passing gas is a natural act, not a comedy routine.

 

 

Lose Some, Find Some: or Today I Spill the Beans

So I’ve been keeping a secret. I hate secrets. They put so much distance between us. So today, I’m just going to lay it right out there. I think you’re going to like it.

First, let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, an interesting species of turtle became extinct. Last seen in 1908, the Arakan Forest Turtle, Heosemys depressa, disappeared and was never seen again. It seems like a sad story, but stick with me. About 100 years later, in 1994, a scientist visiting a food market in Asia was astounded to find a few of these animals for sale! A relic population was discovered, and animals were taken into captivity in the hopes of forming assurance colonies and potentially increasing its numbers.

With wild-caught animals in general, and reptiles in particular, breeding isn’t a straightforward endeavor. With dogs and cats, boy + girl = offspring too numerous to count. With wild animals, the equation can be far more complicated. We are just beginning to understand and respect the complex social signals and mating rituals many animals require in order to reproduce. Cheetahs, for example, need a choice of more than one male in order to breed successfully. In the last ten years or so, our thoughts on cheetah reproduction has changed dramatically, and zoos have moved their charges to breeding centers when trying for cubs rather than keeping specific pairs of animals.

To complicate matters further, getting the first generation of wild-caught animals to breed doesn’t mean the species is automatically saved.  The offspring of these wild-caught animals are noted in the studbook as F1, the first generation born in captivity. Since it is no longer desirable, or in some cases even possible, to continue to take animals out of the wild, it is important that the F1 generation reproduce themselves. Breeding programs for many different species are in a race to produce the next generation, the captive-bred’s captive-bred, the elusive F2.

Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Take the white rhinoceros, for example. Animals taken from the wild, even as juveniles, have bred fairly successfully in zoos. The two older females at our zoo, for example, have produced an impressive ten calves apiece over the last 30 years or so. There are plenty of F1 calves in zoos around the country. But for reasons poorly understood at this point, there have been precious few F2s. The offspring of the wild ones are not having babies of their own.

Producing an F2 is a pretty big deal. It means that the diet and care given to the animal are more or less correct. It means that we’re moving in the right direction, and that we may be able to save some critically endangered species.

The Arakan Forest Turtle, an animal whose life in the wild we still don’t fully understand even 20 years later and whose diet and husbandry has been educated guesswork, has been bred in captivity several times. That’s great news, of course. But zoos and private breeders have been working with that F0 generation and producing  only F1s. Until now.

Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the first f2 Arakan Forest Turtle in the world, hatched at Knoxville Zoo about three weeks ago.

I looked in the incubator one afternoon, and this guy was looking back at me.

I looked in the incubator one afternoon, and this guy was looking back at me.

Click the images to enlarge.

This development is especially exciting because, unlike species who are endangered due to habitat destruction, there is still wild habitat for these animals to return to. If they continue to be bred in captivity in reasonable numbers, they may one day be able to go home.

So here’s  a shout-out right here to Brad Moxley, dedicated keeper at my zoo. Congrats, Brad! Your hard work  is paying off! It’s an honor to work with you, sir.