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Excerpt: CHAPTER 1
Getting Under the Shell
On our first date, my husband, Allen, mentioned in passing that at the age of twelve, he’d kept thirty pet turtles. “Turtles are wonderful animals,” he said. “They’re really underrated.”
My first mistake was thinking that this interest was cute.
My second mistake was thinking that it was ancient history.
Today, eleven turtles populate a three-foot-wide by nine-foot-long habitat that occupies one wall of the kitchen in our Queens, New York, apartment. Two more turtles occupy a 40-gallon fish tank in our dining room. A five-inch-long box turtle has the run of the house. And our bathtub functions as a motel for anywhere from one to fifty itinerant turtles. (Not to worry. We have two bathrooms.) *
There’s even the occasional dead turtle in our refrigerator, wrapped in aluminum foil. It’s waiting to be taken to the vet for an autopsy to determine the cause of death. The day I found poor Sam I thought he was a leftover tuna fish sandwich.
Why do I put up with Allen’s turtle obsession?
Because it’s his greatest passion . . . after me. In the months following our first get-together, in the fall of 1985, dating segued into romance. Allen was a warm, intelligent man who made me laugh. We had a lot in common. We were both in marketing. I worked at an ad agency as a direct response copywriter (in other words, I wrote “junk mail”); Allen was a freelance public relations consultant. We shared an addiction to books and a love of movies, museums, and plays. We’d both been raised in New York City (me in Brooklyn, Allen in the Bronx), and both now lived in Manhattan.
I was impressed by Allen’s decency: the time I tossed a bag of trash onto a heap of garbage bags in my building’s incinerator room, Allen insisted I put the bag down the chute. It was unfair to my neighbors, he said, to add to the mess. He himself was touched, he told me, when, during our second date (a cold winter night), I’d insisted that we warm up over a subway grate while waiting for a bus. Through such small gestures our love grew.
Turtles reappeared in Allen’s life—and entered mine—one weekend in April, when, eager to get out of Manhattan for an afternoon, I suggested we visit the Bronx Zoo. Visiting the zoo was fine with Allen, provided we stopped at the Reptile House to see the turtles.
We arrived at the zoo on a balmy afternoon, and paused to admire the peacocks, giraffes, and lions. But after two minutes, Allen grabbed my hand and began leading me away from the African Veldt. “Hey wait, I want to watch the lions,” I said.
“No problem. We’ll come back after we’ve seen the turtles.”
My desire to see the big cats evaporated. We could see them later, or another day. I was in love and amenable to Allen’s suggestions. Five months had zoomed by; we were planning to move in together.
“Okay. Turtles it is.”
At the Reptile House, we stopped just inside the entrance to scrutinize a display of newly-hatched snakes and caimans. That’s when Allen spied a flyer for The New York Turtle and Tortoise Society (NYTTS for short) on a bulletin board next to the display. “This is wonderful,” he said. “First I fall in love with you, and now I find people who love turtles.” Allen joined the Turtle Society the next day.
Apparently, lots of people loved turtles. At the time there were more than 500 Turtle Society members in the New York City area alone. The Society held monthly meetings at the American Museum of Natural History, in a room right next to the Hall of Reptiles.
Within weeks of joining the Turtle Society, Allen confessed that my love and support had given him new impetus to return to his first love: turtles. He assured me that he’d acquire, oh, maybe two turtles, and that when he moved in with me in late fall we could find room in the apartment for say, one twenty gallon fish tank.
Of course I agreed . . . how could I deny the love of my life two turtles?
Allen hadn’t seen turtles in pet stores in many years. That’s because, during the 1970s, a near-epidemic (hundreds of thousands of cases across the country) of turtle-related salmonella poisoning among young children had prompted laws banning turtle sales by local pet stores. Jim Van Abbema, a new Turtle Society acquaintance, suggested that Allen would find turtles in Chinatown, where they were sold for food. “But be prepared for a shock,” Jim warned. “They’re kept under terrible conditions.”
Allen was on his way to Mott Street minutes after hanging up the phone….
*That was back in 2000; today, 2013, the turtle population at our place has plummeted–to a mere five box turtles.
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