This Monday, Columbus Day, marks 45 years that Arthur the ornate box turtle has lived as a pet. His longevity, as well as improved conservation laws prohibiting the capture of other wild turtles, are worth celebrating.
Good Natured: 45 Years of Artie
October 6, 2023
Okay Good Natured readers, pop quiz! What notable events occurred in 1978?
I’ll wait while you think. Or Google.
Okay, time’s up! Do these memories match yours?
* 900+ people died in the Jonestown massacre in Guyana.
* Grease, Superman and, my personal favorite, Animal House, were the year’s top movies.
* Louise Brown, the world’s first “test-tube baby” was born.
* A high-school junior adopted an ornate box turtle and began a 45-year relationship that continues to this day.
Okay I’ll admit that last item is a bit personal, given that I was that turtle-crazy teen. But it’s something I wanted to share for a couple of reasons. One, turtles remain popular as pets and two, 45 years is a heckuva long time.
For better or worse, Arthur Karen–Artie to his friends–ranks among my longest relationships. The only longer ones are with my friend Karen, who’s responsible for his middle name, and my baby brother Kurt, who showed up in November of 1968.
While our life together has been lengthy, I can’t really say it’s been typical. At least not by ornate box turtle standards.
Terrapene ornata is native to Illinois, but unlike the more common eastern box turtle, T. carolina, a woodland-dwelling species, ornates are adapted to living in prairies. Once upon a time, back when Illinois lived up to its nickname The Prairie State, ornate box turtles could be found in roughly half of our 102 counties. There they roamed the grassy, treeless areas, feeding on a wide range of invertebrates as well as berries and, occasionally, carrion.
Today though that prairie is mostly farmland, and ornate boxies can be found in only 10 counties. What remains of their suitable habitat is fragmented, broken into parcels that don’t connect, and the species is listed as state threatened.
In fact I kinda wonder whether it was habitat destruction that led to Artie’s being captured and put up for sale. I have little doubt that he was wild caught. He was no kid when I acquired him, and the dirty box he was sold from looked like it had traveled a distance, perhaps in the back of a pickup truck or the ample trunk of a 1970s auto.
In 1978 the collection of reptiles and amphibians for sale in the pet trade wasn’t tightly regulated, and the laws that existed were hard to enforce. I can just picture someone, or a group of someones, capturing a large portion of a wild population that was struggling to exist in a fraction of their former range.
In 2023 ornate box turtles and in fact all wild reptiles and amphibians in our state are protected. Thanks to the Illinois Herptile Act, a.k.a the IL Herp Code, signed into law in 2015, it is illegal to kill or collect any reptile or amphibian on public land without a permit. The regulation came too late to save Artie, but countless other herps are living freely because of it.
Still, I like to believe that my little boy has fared okay since that fateful day we met. Other than the box in which he came home with me, he’s never been tightly confined. In cooler weather he lived in my bedroom, with a board across the door, and spent several summers in an outdoor atrium at the Wheaton Eye Clinic. (I spent several summers there too, working odd jobs, and it was always fun to hear patients in the waiting room “discover” Artie as he clomped through the groundcover or basked in the sun. My favorite comment: “I think those eye drops are making me see things. I could swear I just saw a rock walk past the window.”)
Curious by nature, Artie continued his adventures during our years together at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He made one roommate scream when he unexpectedly clambered over her bare foot; he surprised another when he left a small deposit in her shoe. He also went on a jaunt one day, strolling casually down the hallway of our aged apartment building, perhaps to see if the neighbors’ cockroaches were any bigger or better than the ones in our own unit.
Over the years he’s gotten into his share of scrapes, too. A floor register cover removed for cleaning resulted in Artie’s crawling several feet into the ductwork; an open door led to a multi-day escapade in the backyard. A new dog mistook him for a chew toy, and a tangle with a plastic bag resulted in toe loss on a rear foot.
Overall though, he’s done all right. His appetite is healthy, his weight is good and his legs are strong. A large outdoor pen gives him opportunity to soak up the sunshine and, this time of year, chomp the grasshoppers and crickets that land inside.
Forty-five years. Wow. It sounds great, doesn’t it? Having an animal friend that is so long lived? Most other common pets-and I think I’ve had them all at one time or another-have much shorter lifespans.
But life with a long-lived animal is not without consequences. Besides daily care, I’ve had to factor Artie’s needs into my housing decisions and vacation plans. I’ve also made arrangements should he outlast me. If you or someone you know is considering acquiring an animal companion that is, shall we say, enduring, keep these experiences in mind.
Hallmark says the 45th anniversary is celebrated with blue sapphires or, if on a budget, a trip to a blues club. (Not making that up, I swear!)
Artie’s not fond of loud music, and stones-even fancy ones-could cause a dangerous intestinal blockage, so we’ll probably celebrate quietly. Some blueberries for him, some blueberry wine for me. Cheers to 45 years!
Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.