As spring abdicated and summer took the throne, there were turtle races in the garden (Chili always won; Somethingorother was content to enjoy the scenery from a stationary viewpoint) and lawn sprinkler parties. Bigger and better water guns were tested, with the alltime favorite the Super Soaker - water artillery equivalent of a bazooka. The house rule has always been 'Never shoot at anyone who is unarmed' so the turtles were safe, as they refused to bear arms. Armor didn't count. As promised, they weren't interested in food served a la Tera firma. The garden vegetables were safe from turtle molestation. The abandoned fledgling Bluejay the next door neighbors were raising was quite a different story. He developed a taste for fresh peas and enjoyed hanging out in the garden with the kids, who taught him haw to dig for earthworms, and where to find the peas... But that's, well, as I said, another story.
On an early morning walk one day, I was fascinated with the hordes of grasshoppers scattering in small clicking explosions in every direction with each step I took through the grass. One startled me by dropping into the big, baggy pocket of my sweater. I was trying to shake it out of my pocket when it occurred to me to wonder if the turtles would eat it. So I left it in the pocket and added a few more and kept them live in my pocket as I walked home. There were dead grasshoppers along the edge of the road as well... Victims, I supposed, of the windshields, radiators and tires of passing vehicles. I picked up a few of these too.
Back home, I rounded up the turtles and poured them a bath. Once they were paddling elegantly in the water, I dropped a live grasshopper in with them. It took a few minutes for them to notice it. In fact, the grasshopper had rowed itself across the water's surface to cling to the side of the tub several times, where I retrieved and returned it to the water, before a turtle deigned to take an interest. Somethingorother paddled lazily over and prodded it. This got the grasshopper pretty excited, which, in turn, made things more interesting to the turtle, who tried a nibble, liked what he tasted, and finished the hapless insect off. The second grasshopper didn't make it to the edge of the tub. The third was nearly snapped out of my hand. I dropped a dead one in, with no response. Chili, oblivious to the feast at the next table, munched broccoli. He eventually caught on, after a few grasshopper feedings, when I didn't put the broccoli in until after the grasshoppers were gone. "No veggies till you finish your bugs," I told him.
From then on, there was always a small lidded container in the baggy pocket during my morning walks. In no time I was a grasshopper catching wizard, an extremely popular skill with small children. I was good at frogs too, though I never tried to feed them to the turtles. I like frogs, and we weren't overrun with them. Feeding grasshoppers to turtles was my small contribution to sustainable agriculture in my little corner of the world. Organic, even. They were a pestilence that year, and farmers were fearing for their crops.
On my return home one morning, with a poor catch, I noticed a lot of very big ants on the sidewalk outside the house. Not wanting to return empty handed, I tucked a few of these into my jar. Some variety in their diet might be welcomed by the turtles. The ants rowed across the surface of the water most satisfactorily, and the turtles were ready for them. After a couple of weeks of fresh grasshoppers, they were skilled hunters. Chili was the first to bag an ant. And spit it out immediately and urgently with a look of pained disgust. Somethingorother did the same. Not only would they not eat the ants, they wouldn't eat the broccoli I gave them later that day. Nothing. They weren't touching a thing, thank you very much. The next feeding day we were back to grasshoppers, after a cautious few nibbles. When I mentioned this to a scientist friend, he said, "of course they wouldn't eat ants. They're full of oxalic acid. They must taste terrible." I guess they'd never heard of sour candy.
There was a lovely shallow, slow moving finger of the nearby river, behind an island, with a bit of tree-bordered meadow where there was a modest provincial campsite. We often took the canoe there on hot summer days to paddle, swim, and roast wieners round the campfire. This particular year, we happened to be there when the minnows had recently hatched out. They, like the grasshoppers, were everywhere. My boys were certain the turtles would enjoy a meal of fresh fish, so they devoured the contents of the pickle jar, rinsed it in the river, and scooped up a few minnows. I suspect the attraction of eating far too may dill pickles was as strong as that of a fresh fish dinner for pets. Uncharacteristically, they were eager to go home early that night.
The tub was duly filled, turtles deposited, and minnows released. To no effect at all. The minnows swum hither and yon unmolested. If it didn't sit on the surface of the water it was a neighbor, apparently - certainly not food. We left them together overnight with the bathroom light on, just in case it took a while for the minnows to get the turtles' attention, and went to bed. In the morning all but one of the minnows was dead, bright red inflammation around their gills evidence of a painful death by chlorine burn. Human logic is a strange thing. We were ok with giving them a violent death at the hands of a predator, but painful asphyxiation by chlorine poisoning felt like brutal murder. And, as with the dead grasshoppers, the turtles had no interest in dead meat. We gave the deceased minnows a respectful burial in the garden, then dumped the buttons out of an old fishbowl and ensconced the lonely minnow in it. His gills were burned too, but he was a survivor. We were, of course, careful after this to always dechlorinate his water. On our next trip to the river his gills had lost their painful, inflamed look and he was released into the wild.
By this time we were not only accustomed to our personable amphibian guests, but quite fond of them. They, in turn were comfortable with us, ranging freely over the main floor of the house. Though they could be found in some odd places at times, especially if clothes were left on the floor, the toy storage under the stairs remained their premiere hideaway. Gone were fears of turtle attack; the kids rummaged about under there freely now, but with consideration, always aware someone lived there now.
Friend Paula's new (to her) home was now nearly ready for habitation, and she would be moving in soon. I mentioned to the mother of a violin student that we were going to miss the turtles when they went home. She beamed and asked if I wanted some of my own. It seems a friend of hers had two turtles her son had raised from babies. The lad was now finished university and getting married, so the turtles were nearly 20 years old. The new wife had made it clear that turtles the size of dinner plates - even if they were kept in a tank - were not part of the deal, so Mum was afraid she'd be stuck with the things. After a phone call we were formally introduced, and only a few days later we had 4 free range turtles. I thought my boys would die of excitement.