Life with 4 turtles wasn't much different from life with 2 turtles. The new guys, came without names. When we asked what their names were, their former keeper looked at us like we'd grown shells of our own. So we called them Darlin'- about 8" of shell and timid femininity and Hunka - slightly smaller in diameter - after Elvis Presley's 'Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love. We were told he was a male. His shell was very distinctively differently shaped from that of Darlin', with squarer shoulders and a deeper carapace. They had spent all of their 20 + years in a tank, so were not immediately comfortable with being free range turtles.
They did immediately discover the under-stairs turtle cave, and unanimously agreed that it was home base. Turtles don't appear to be territorial - there were no turf wars, and we often found all four of them in a heap together under Superman's cape or a crinoline. Both of the new turtles were bigger than Chili and Somethingorother.... perhaps turtles respect their elders, or don't mess with someone bigger than them... or perhaps they were glad for the company. At first the only indicator that the turtle population had doubled was an increase in things that go bump in the night.
And then there were five..... That summer there was an unexpected addition to the family. The local Animal Control Officer was the leader of the boys' Scout Pack, and was an old friend to our pets. He called up with a request for us to foster an injured Mississippi Red Eared Slider that had been found wandering the streets of Peace River, an hour's drive from us. This unfortunate lady proved to be bigger still, than any of the others. Akela speculated that she may be as much as 30 years old. She had some cuts to her legs and shell (he thought it looked like a dog had attacked her), and a dislocated joint on one of her hind legs. We gave her a special diet high in vitamins, and lots of time in the tub. She seemed to make a full recovery. She was also the most sociable of our turtles, seeming to enjoy the company of homo sapiens, when the others merely tolerated us, if they noticed us at all. We thought that, considering her mature age and apparent health (aside from the recent injuries) and her obvious familiarity with human society, someone must be attached to her, and wanting her back. As notices and advertisements had been posted about her, we felt certain it wouldn't be long before someone came to claim her. As the months drew on, and no one claimed her, we succumbed to our fond feelings for her and began to consider her a permanent part of the family. We dubbed her 'Sweetie'.
With 5 turtles in the family, it seemed only right that they should have their own room - at least for the summer. Next to the greenhouse we dug a hole for a pond, lined it with vinyl, added some stones for basking, plantings for shade, and and built a low fence around it. It was quite picturesque, and most satisfying to see them paddling in the water or soaking in the sun.... once they got over their agoraphobia. We hardly saw them for the first week or 2 they spent outside. Turtles are wizards at hiding. And devious. Just when I was getting less anxious at seeing no turtles in the pen, and ceased to hunt every one of them down in the pen every time I went outside, some primal memory kicked and and they started to dig. Under the fence.
The summer was one of repeated crises, as we recovered escaped turtles all over the yard, almost daily. They spent nights in the house, so never had a long time to plan and implement an escape, but, now fearlessly accustomed to the out-of-doors, they were determined to explore. We learned to keep an eye on them while they were out, meanwhile wracking our brains for new, harmless ways to barricade them in. Rocks didn't work, even if we buried them. They just dug under or around or between them. Once, when they all got out and scattered in different directions, Hunka almost made the Great Escape. After gathering up the other 4, we searched the neighborhood all day for him, with no sighting. By dark we had given up on him, and gone to bed heartbroken. Breakfast was a morose affair, the only conversation being worried comments on all of the terrible things that could have happened to him. We were nearly resigned to life without him when a neighbor showed up with him in a box in in his car trunk the next afternoon. He'd found Hunka in the middle of the road, a block away, heading south. The boys were deliriously happy to see him. He was indifferent as usual. We speculated that his choice of travel direction might be an indicator of an early winter.
By autumn, as it got too cool for them outside, all 5 turtles were once again emptying the bookshelves, or basking in the sunspot on the living room floor. This was, incidentally, the space I used for violin lessons. My students soon learned that the thumping under the stairs wasn't the dragon (she lived in the furnace room, and was responsible for heating the house... loudly), but one or more of the turtles redecorating its living space. Frequently someone, usually Sweetie, would wander out during a lesson, particularly if the sun was bright. These moments were the highlight of music lessons. One memorable day, my young virtuoso and I were engrossed a new and challenging composition. We didn't notice the arrival of Hunka. Not at first. Before long, it was impossible to ignore him. He made his way to the base of the music stand, still unnoticed, until the stand began to move, having wedged its legs on his shoulders. Mum and I were proud beyond words, of the determined young musician who continued to play from the moving score, following it across the room as Hunka made his oblivious way to the bookshelf for his favorite read. The show must go on!
With Autumn also came the completion of friend Paula's home renovations, and the day for Chili and Somethingorother to move to their new digs. Lucky turtles - radiant floors, and more than twice the square footage we had to offer. They were moving to the Ritz.
We hunkered down, as the first snows fell, with no premonition of the hardships an exceptionally bitter, cold, and long winter would bring for our beloved turtles.