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Freedom Versus Safety: A Box Turtle Mama’s Dilemma

Bruce on his very first day with us after being rescued to me a second time. He has claimed the big plush alligator as his own. He lived under the file cabinet in my office for the first week until I could get a second habitat set up for him!

As some of you may already know, in addition to my beloved 17-year-old parrot, Pearl, I am also a surrogate mama to two turtles (well, technically, one tortoise and one turtle), Malti and Bruce.

Malti, a South American red-footed tortoise, came to me from a breeder when she was only a month old. Bruce, a Texas 3-toed box turtle, took a more complicated route to join our little flock.

Back in May 2015, Malti went missing for about a week. During that time, I kept getting calls from people who, when I answered the phone, would announce excitedly, “I think I’ve found your missing turtle!”

They kept finding Bruce instead. The first time he was rescued to me, he was being terrorized by neighborhood dogs. The lady whose home he fled towards told me she recognized him as one of the many “rescued” turtles her grandson had re-homed in her backyard.

The second time he was rescued to me, a young couple drove him to my house, explaining as they deposited his small shelled body into my hands that they had noticed him trying to cross a very busy street nearby.

At that point, the part of me that firmly believes wild creatures deserve to stay wild caved and took him in. In a way I guess I “rescued” him….from other people, from the suburbs, from cars and dogs and what seemed to be a surely fatal trajectory otherwise.

My Bruce, behind “safe” bars in his outdoor enclosure.

But to this day – and it has been two years now since he joined our flock – my heart still aches. In exchange for safety with me and sanctuary from suburban perils and well-meaning but ill-informed people who take box turtles away from their birth site and out of the wild to keep as pets, Bruce has lost his freedom.

I do the best I can to provide him with a roomy outdoor enclosure that includes edible plants, a big swimming “pool,” multiple places to hide and plenty of protection during his annual hibernation cycle each winter.

I feed him fresh, live mealworms (I used to feel bad about this until I learned how mean the little suckers are – sometimes they even bite him inside his throat as he gulps them down!) and plenty of finely-chopped fresh fruits and veggies. He gets my mom’s signature dish, fresh wild caught salmon, as a regular entree as well as tinned organic tuna and salmon for supplements.

Even his vet says Bruce is an “uncommonly good-looking box turtle.” I can’t help but agree!

But when I look in his eyes, I see conflict. Or maybe I just see my own internal conflict reflected back at me.

My boyfriend thinks I should set him free, perhaps in a national forest or park. We have plenty of these in Texas. His argument is that it is better to give Bruce his freedom, with all the risks that freedom entails, then to pen him up just so he will stay alive. I absolutely see his point. I am tempted.

But Bruce’s vet thinks Bruce’s chances of surviving “out there” in the wild are dangerously low. If he is not picked up yet again by another well-meaning but ignorant tourist who thinks he is “pet material,” he is still unlikely to ever meet a lady box turtle to mate with, given how rare it is to find a box turtle in the wild these days. So in that sense, I would be releasing him to a solitary life and death. That doesn’t tempt me one bit.

Bruce out enjoying “free time” in the yard – but whenever he encounters any kind of barrier or fence, he seems unable to resist trying to get through it. Often I wonder, “is he trying to get out…or in?”

Either way, it is a guarantee he will spend the remainder of his days wandering endlessly in search of his birth site.

Box turtles are particularly geo-centric when it comes to their native territory, and when given an option, will choose to spend their time looking for “home” over all other activities, including eating, mating and even resting.

Box turtles tend to live out their lives within a few acres of where they hatched….This may seem like a positive thing, but when box turtles get displaced from their birth habitat they spend the rest of their lives looking for it instead of looking for a mate. They will neglect to eat and even hibernate in their quest to return home. Studies have shown that displaced box turtles will not resettle in a new location. No matter how many times they are recovered, the turtles continue to wander away looking for home. –Walden’s Puddle

Bruce, Malti and Pearl are lucky to have world-class vet care. Our go-to exotic animal consultant  is a National Geographic herpetologist with extensive field and research experience working with threatened and endangered reptiles and amphibians. She assures us that, difficult though the choice may be to make, Bruce is far better off living with me in captivity than he would be if I chose a random spot for his release and left him to his own devices. He would absolutely wander until he died, searching for his original home.

Yet, my heart continues to hurt. He needs more – so much more – than what I can give him. He DESERVES so much more and I can’t see any way to give it to him.

Bruce, chilling at his own personal watering hole in his outdoor enclosure. He loves to swim and soak.

The trouble, it would seem, is systemic. It is global. And it truly is us, not them.

In the world Bruce and Malti and Pearl and I live in, it doesn’t really matter if you are a box turtle or a cockatiel or a gorilla or a pond frog. All that matters is that you are not a homo sapiens.

If you are not a homo sapiens, you don’t get all the choices. You only get the ones that people allow you to have. If a person comes along and thinks you look delicious, you will be dinner. If a person comes along and thinks you look cute and cuddly, you will be their pet.

If a person comes along and thinks your head or hands or skin or fur would fetch big bucks on the open market, you will be for sale. If a person comes along and covets your home for logging or living or building a new shopping mall, you will relocate or die.

Bruce during his first car ride en route to the vet for his first checkup. He ordinarily hates to be picked up or held, but during that ride he clung to me like glue.

The world I am looking for – the world where Bruce would have all the same choices I have (and maybe even more) – well, I don’t know where that world is. I can’t find it, and neither can he.

I know it used to exist. I know it because of quotes like these, from a fabulously sad and moving book called “Walking with the Great Apes” by Sy Montgomery:

In other, older cultures than our own, in which people live closer to the Earth, humans do not look down on animals from an imaginary pinnacle. Life is not divided between animals and people, nonhuman and human; life is a continuum, interactive, interdependent.

Humans and animals are considered companions and co-players in the drama of life. Animals’ lives, their motives and thoughts and feelings, deserve human attention and respect; dismissing their importance is a grave error, akin to the modern Western concept of sin.

Animals, like people living and dead, are teachers, protectors, destroyers, bearers of extraordinary perceptions, bringers of rain and drought, providers of meat and clothing. Animals, like people, are endowed with souls, and they are respected, imitated, sought and consulted.

I will admit that when I was born, I didn’t think this way. The culture I grew up in didn’t place any particular emphasis on animals one way or another (unless you count that, when I put my foot down around age 13 and refused to eat any more meat, I was told I would “die of starvation.”)

I had to seek out this knowledge of another way, an alternate path, on my own. I had to tune in to the nurturing, enlivening, balancing company of the nonhuman beings we still share this world with on my own. There wasn’t anyone I recall who was overtly encouraging me to deal animals into the mix, to give them room to speak and teach and lead and grow and live, to accord them equal respect and rights, to remember that most of them were here in some form long before my species arrived….

I don’t know what precisely woke me up to this perspective, although I suspect it was facing my own mortality as I battled an eating disorder, anxiety/panic and depression, along with the ever-faithful and unconditionally loving company of my parrots, who were always eager to be with me no matter how messed up or unworthy or unlovable I felt. In their eyes, I was just fine. Why wouldn’t they greet me with enthusiasm? Why wouldn’t they love me just the way I am?

In time, I began to realize I preferred their company to that of most humans. When I finally gathered up all my courage, I added Malti to our little two-some of me and Pearl, and discovered I absolutely had enough love to go around. Then Bruce came along, and my heart stretched still further and has been stretching ever since.

But I do not see it as my “right” to “keep” animals just so I will have the kind of company I like best. Pearl has a permanent wing injury – he will never fly and could never be released into the wild. More pertinently, neither Malti nor Pearl are native to North America, and both were born and bred in captivity to be companion animals to some homo sapiens.

In each of their cases, I would like to think perhaps they are getting a better life with me than they would have had with anyone else. And I surely strive to ensure this is so.

But Bruce is another matter entirely. Maybe there is no answer to his – our – dilemma. Maybe the only answers are terrible answers, un-acceptable answers. I don’t know. I just want to do right by him for whatever time he abides with us, whether it be for a few years or forever.

Today’s Takeaway: Do you have any personal experience with rescuing animals who may have been previous pets, were set free and then came to you in crisis and entered captivity once again? What are your thoughts? Do you have any advice to share? PLEASE, if you do choose to comment, keep it personal to your own experiences with rescued animals and keep it kind. <3

Freedom Versus Safety: A Box Turtle Mama’s Dilemma

Shannon Cutts

Freelance writer. Author. Cockatiel, redfoot tortoise & box turtle mama.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2019). Freedom Versus Safety: A Box Turtle Mama’s Dilemma. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Mar 2019
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