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This isn't some mamby-pamby turtle story. This shit is real.

Today Churchy the three-legged turtle went to day camp. It was the second year in a row he was asked to enlighten campers about life as a turtle. Just so you know, it’s more than an educational program. The nature center has two resident turtles, and after the meet-and-greet there’s a race among the three, including the guest turtle, Churchy. And surprise, surprise, last year Churchy won, despite having 25 percent fewer legs than the others.

I’d like to think he enjoys the annual June afternoon at the nature center, but that’s my ego. He’s not some 4-year-old who gets excited about a play date. He’s pushing two decades on this earth, the last ten or so spent hibernating in a terrarium in the winter, living for summer when he can frolic—or his version thereof—in his territory, the vegetable garden. He likes to sit under the tomato plants and watch them grow, hunt for worms and bugs, and take the occasional dip in the pool—upgraded from a Frisbee to the top of a bird bath just this year.

But really, like all turtles, he dreams of escape. A couple of summers ago, taunted and tempted by the neighbor’s strawberry patch, he found the vulnerable spot in the new garden fence and made his way across the yard and through the gate. He was lucky we found him there, before the neighbor’s dog or lawnmower did. But he doesn’t know that. He doesn’t even know he’s missing a leg.

So indeed he was not terribly pleased when I went out this afternoon and placed him in his little travel carrier. Nor was he appeased by the small strawberry that I had cultivated just for him and offered as a small bribe for his trouble.

My daughter is a senior assistant naturalist at the day camp, which is how our turtle gets the gig. I delivered Churchy at 2 p.m. as promised. Upon our arrival at the nature center, Grace introduced me to the other turtles.

“What kind is he?” I asked, pointing to a turtle with an interesting design on the shell, gracefully swimming near the glass of its enclosure.

“She’s not a he, and now you’ve offended her,” Grace said. “I’m not sure of the species, but she’s endangered. She was found at a pet shop and it’s illegal to sell her so she lives here.”

“What about this one?” I asked, pointing at the other, a terrapin, common but loveable.

“He’s domesticated so he can’t live in the wild.”

As the only western box turtle in the show, Churchy complements the other two, at least for the purposes of educational instruction. You don’t want to actually put them together in nature, though. That would mean two males with one female, and an endangered female at that. As my guidebook on box turtle says, “Too many males spoil the peace.” The boy turtles would likely get aggressive.

I felt sort of bad for the nature-center turtles, not having a whole vegetable garden in which to range. Churchy was restless in the little carrying-case terrarium that I brought him in, even for a few minutes.

After the turtle tour, Grace made it clear it was time for me to go. We have a tacit understanding that it cannot be known that she has even one parent, lest her street cred as independent senior assistant naturalist be somehow diminished. I donned my shades and promised to pick them up in a couple hours.

A quarter-mile down the road, I looked at the pavement ahead and saw my car was about to drive over a turtle. When I say “drive over,” I mean that the turtle was walking at a moderate pace about halfway between the car’s tires. I checked the rearview and saw the car behind me veer slightly. There were cars coming the other way, and road work just ahead as well. It was like a driver’s ed movie, and at first I reacted accordingly. Just keep going. You can’t save them all. Keep going on your merry way. But really I was thinking I didn’t want to see the turtle smashed. It’s heartbreaking. She’s just trying to lay her eggs in a marshy habitat that happens to me on a particular side of the road. As I turned on to my street, I realized how wimpy it was to not save the turtle because I was afraid of seeing her dead. What if I could save her, but didn’t?

I turned around and headed back to the construction zone, eyes on the road. My plan was to pull over past the road crew, look both ways, and then make a dramatic rescue if at all possible. I mean, I was even wearing my turtle shirt. I had no excuse. If there were any reporters around, it would make a perfect little vignette in the local paper. Or would I appear crazy? Was I wearing the turtle earrings too? No, thank God.

The roadway was clear, and then finally I spotted her, a pretty little terrapin who had made it safely across the street and was headed for the woods. She did it, all by herself. It felt like a victory for the other three, in their varying degrees of safety and domestication. They need us, but maybe they really don’t. Turtles probably don’t have egos.

Here’s the deep—if not ecologically sound—epiphany of the experience: We are all endangered species, walking across the street, hunting and gathering food or relying on others to provide it, unaware of when we might have been saved by strangers or friends. And because I cannot help but mention it, Churchy won the turtle race again this year. Lack of a fourth leg may be a disadvantage, but he makes up for it by being master of his own world, at least inside the confines of the summer garden.
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