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Dan Conradt: It's easy to have a soft spot for pond turtles

The canoe rocked as Steven jumped out, sending little ripples radiating across the pond.

He was holding something in the kind of two-handed grip normally reserved for a Big Mac, and his arms made a whisking sound as they rubbed against his bulky orange life jacket.

"Look what I found!" he said, running toward me. "I'm going to keep him!"

"Him", not "it." I suspected he wasn't holding an unusual rock, and he confirmed my suspicions: "It's a turtle!"

"Wow, he's a dandy," I said, trying to stay noncommittal. He handed me the baseball-sized turtle, and I turned it over.


The bottom of the shell was an intricate pattern of orange, yellow and brown. "It's a painted turtle," I explained.

"Let's take him home to show mom!" Steven said. "Then I'm going to keep him in my room."

Then, a complication: "I have to ride my bike home. Can you take the turtle in the car?"

I'll admit to occasional transgressions as a driver; I've talked on the phone, drank coffee and eaten a sandwich (not all at the same time). But I'd never driven while holding a turtle — I tried, but he kept crawling out of the cup holder. I'm sure I wasn't paying as much attention to the road as I should have been; the turtle seemed intent on taking a chunk out of my finger, and I had to wonder how I would explain a car accident under such circumstances:

"No, officer, I haven't been drinking. See, I was holding this turtle, and he bit my thumb, and …"

Steven's bike coasted into the driveway right behind the car, and we pulled a plastic tub box out of the garage and built a turtle habitat out of an inch of water and a flat rock shaped like Idaho. We put the turtle down somewhere near Boise, and he slid awkwardly into the water.

"He likes it!" Steven said.

It's hard to tell what a turtle is thinking from the look on his face, but I didn't think he liked it.


"You know, Steven, a turtle is a wild animal. I think we should take him back down to the pond and let him go."

I felt hypocritical saying it because I'd spent most of my youthful summers with a tub full of turtles in the backyard.

"No, I think we should keep him," Steven insisted. "I know what to feed him — turtle food!"

I ended most of my youthful summers carrying a bucket full of turtles back down to the creek and letting them go, and I knew how bittersweet it could be.

Sometimes parenting is a balancing act.

"I think he'd be a lot happier in the pond," I explained. "It's his home, and he can get all the food he needs." Then the clincher: "And all his friends are there."

I'd struck a soft spot.

"Can you take him back?" He couldn't bear to watch, and I understood; I'd released enough turtles to know what he was feeling. "Sure, I can."


I poured the water out of the plastic tub to keep it from sloshing on the car floor and drove back to the pond. I put the turtle down in the shadow of a tangle of brush on the edge of the water, and he tucked himself into his shell.

A blue jay chattered from a tree branch on the edge of the pond.

Slowly, the turtle inched his head out of his shell and looked around cautiously. Then, with moves faster than I thought a turtle could make, he took three quick steps and slid into the water. He held his head up like a tiny periscope, then disappeared out of site.

It's still bittersweet, even if it's the right thing to do.

"Did you let him go?" Steven asked when I got home.

"Yes, I did."

"He's happier being back in the pond." It was a question masquerading as a statement.

"Yes he is," I said. "And we got to enjoy him at our house for a little while."


"He was a really nice turtle."

"He was the best turtle ever."

It's hard to tell what a turtle is thinking from the look on his face, but just before the tiny periscope disappeared I thought I saw a smile.

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