It’s been said time heals all wounds, but there’s no provision in that proverb to address spray paint. The slash of orange on the carapace of the western pond turtle I had helped rescue from a neighborhood swimming pool earlier this year was like a bull’s eye, sure to mark her unreleasable – or so I thought when I brought her to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum for treatment (read about it here). The turtle in question, an adult female, had been through the ringer: the pads of all four limbs cut and raw, missing claws on each outermost digit, a laceration on one hind leg, her tail-tip necrotic and dangling, and that damned orange spray paint. Over the next few weeks, I called every few days to check on her status. Within a week of admission, the turtle had been moved to a turtle tank and was taking chunks of fingerling trout. But despite her recuperation, the paint weighed heavy on my mind.
And so it was that when an email appeared in my inbox two months later, I was surprised to learn the turtle had received a clean bill of health. The only thing missing (besides the turtle’s tail) was a suitable release site. After reconnoitering several neighborhood creeks, each no more than a trickle in the drought, I reached out to the staff at Save Mount Diablo to see if there was any pond within their 110,000-acre inventory of preserved lands that was still holding water this late in the year.
And there was.
The Big Bend property, one of Save Mount Diablo’s newest land acquisitions on the east side of Mount Diablo acquired in an online auction earlier this year, is an unassuming parcel in Eastern Contra Costa County that borders Marsh Creek. The land has been ridden hard, first as a golf course, later as a pasture for up to 50 to 60 horses at a time. But there’s a sizable pond in the bend, and George Phillips, land conservation manager for Save Mount Diablo who’d been pivotal in green-lighting the release, assured me turtles had been sighted here not too long ago.
Wending my way east along Marsh Creek Road now in late August, I miss the driveway and have to creep backwards along the gravel shoulder until I can nose into the hidden driveway. At the end of the rutted drive, I cross over the sorry excuse of a golf course to join today’s release team. Phillips is talking with Lindsay Wildlife Museum wildlife rehabilitation technician Eugenie Riberi. At Riberi’s feet is a cardboard pet carrier. Phillips points across the baked golf course to our destination. This drought year, the Big Bend pond is the only one of three possible ponds in the neighborhood on Save Mount Diablo’s lands with standing water.
With pleasantries behind us, we hoof it across the rough to scout out the release site. The pond turns out to be a sizable scrape in the ground scooped out by a previous owner. As we crest the embankment overlooking the water, we hear a plop! Something has tumbled into the pond to take cover beneath a protective skin of duckweed. Even though it’s late summer, at 8:30 in the morning the sun is still struggling to overtop Mount Diablo and the phalanx of cottonwoods hemming us in. Scanning the pond surface for signs of an emergent nose, or outstretched logs for an early recumbent riser, we see nary a ripple. If the elusive plop! was a basking turtle, it had been an early riser indeed.
The invasive duckweed and a discarded tire are unfortunate reminders of the property’s orphan ancestry. But what’s important is that the pond shows all the qualities of good turtle habitat: emergent vegetation and woody debris upon which to bask, a complexity of water depths which provide nursery grounds for hatchlings in the shallows and foraging habitat and escape cover in the murky depths for adults, and low-lying grassy upland habitat for females to nest. And when we double back toward a stretch of shoreline with an easy approach to the water’s edge, we’re rewarded by a glimpse of a single turtle snout watching us from dead-center in the pond’s marrows.
As Phillips kneels at the waterline to fish a plastic cup out of the water, he scares fingerling Sierran tree frogs from the pocked muddy bank. Riberi pops the top of the pet carrier, and we all take a step forward to peer into the newspaper-lined box. Suddenly the center of attention, the turtle inside begins clambering about as if reminded of the need to protest her imprisonment. Gone now is the orange spray paint that graffitied her shell two months ago. Now, even dry, the marbling on her shell glows in the blemished dawn light. This new un-paint job is thanks to wildlife rehabilitation technician Marianne Dominguez who – realizing that the loud, look-at-me-I’m-over-here paint was standing in the way of the turtle’s release – tackled the tattoo with some warm water and woven gauze and buffed the shell clean.
Up close, it’s apparent how well the turtle has healed. Where there were once angry red abrasions on the pads of her fore- and hind-limbs, the skin has healed over pink and clean. Her tail, dulled to a nub where the necrotic tissue was clipped off, is nevertheless none the worse for wear. She’ll wear these new scars like she’s worn the ones that have long riddled her shell, another badge or two to mark the last – but probably not the last – bump along life’s dusty road. But her skin has healed, and her shell, that cumbersome body armor nicked by tooth and claw and buffed by water and earth, has thus far served its purpose.
This turtle is one of the largest western pond turtles I’ve handled over the years. As I’m measuring the straight-line lengths of her carapace and plastron, the turtle takes this quiet moment to dutifully pee on me. Pee is the western pond turtle’s last offensive strike. Like the jet of water spurted from a trick lapel flower, turtles rely on the element of surprise (and for some, the bonus ‘ick’ factor) on the chance a predator or too-curious human will unceremoniously release them, giving them time to escape. This turtle in particular has earned herself a reputation during her rehabilitation and recovery at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum’s wildlife hospital. Her case history notes “copious urination during exam” upon admission, followed by “hosed down the room with urine unexpectedly.” A few days later, one forward-thinking rehabber warns their colleagues, “Note: this turtle will draw large amounts of water into her cloaca and spray it as a weapon: direct hind end away from people.”
Having been peed on more times than I can count (by turtles, dare I add), I instinctively aim her away from my face and cover her rear quarters as automatically as I once had when changing my son’s diapers. (In both cases, I’ve learned the hard way.) With equivalent plastron (bottom) and carapace (top) shell lengths of 7 inches each, she won’t break any records at the county fair, but she is nevertheless a hale and hearty specimen considering that the average adult western pond turtle today attains carapace lengths of no more than 6 ½ inches, with 7 ¾ to 8 ¾ inches being the upper limits. After a second bout of peeing (and another deft deflection), I take a moment to scratch away some stray fleck of paint. It’s time for the release.
When Riberi sets her down on the shoreline, the turtle beelines for the water’s edge. Moments after the turtle plunges into the water, she dips her head under and then out of the water as if worming her way into a turtleneck sweater, feeling the lap of cool water against her scaly skin. She works her way deeper in, but only a few feet from shore until the water comes close to wetting the dome of her shell. And there, inexplicably, she stops and turns ever so slightly. To watch us, as if to question whether we made a mistake in letting her go. Considering her long journey here, taken from a wildlife rehabilitator from the wildlife hospital from my bathtub from a Coleman ice chest from a backyard swimming pool from the unknown pivotal event that plucked her from the wild who-knows-how-long-ago, this appears to be an unexpected turn of events.
The turtle’s pause somehow seems like approbation. As she watches us watching her watch us, Riberi notices a second, resident turtle – a male – peeking out beneath a hood of duckweed five feet away, come to see what the commotion is all about. This seems as good a time as any to bow out, and we do. On our way out, this time when we pass where the mysterious plop! took place, I see two western pond turtles on a log. The first has already been baked dry by the sun, the second is gracelessly dragging its cumbersome body armor onto a sunny spot next door.
When you think about all the time and people it took to release this one turtle – the Lindsay Wildlife Museum’s rehabilitation staff, veterinarians, and hospital volunteers; California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists; Save Mount Diablo staff; myself and my wife (the photographer); and the thoughtful family who plucked her out of their swimming pool to begin with (not to mention the medical bill) – a cynic might ask if it was worth all that time and money to save a single turtle.
That’s one way to look at.
Or, you could ask instead how the collective time of so many well-meaning souls might otherwise have been spent if someone had simply left the turtle in the wild to begin with.