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You Are So Much More Than Your Shell (So Am I!)

Baby Malti, with the perfect smooth shell of a red-footed tortoise hatchling (May 2014).

Over the past 48 years, I have discovered there are a lot of things in life I am not very good at.

As it turns out, one of them is raising shells….specifically, a hatchling red-footed tortoise named Malti who is now nearly five years old and lives in my casa with me and the rest of our little interspecies flock.

Malti came to me in May 2014. She was – to put it mildly – an impulse purchase.

Fresh off a minor (major) disagreement with my then significant-other, I was supposed to be researching garage apartments on Craig’s List. Instead, I typed in “reptiles.”

A week later, I somehow found myself in possession of a teensy hatchling tortoise in a small plastic dish and a one-page care sheet. Looking back now, it would be nearly impossible to say which one of us was more scared of the other. We made it through the first night, and then the second, and as I slowly lost the urge to check on her 16 times a night, we both started to relax a little bit.

This, as it turned out, was a big mistake.

Fast forward about a year and we are in the veterinary ER (you can read the whole back story on Malti’s blog). I am sobbing on the phone to my folks as I describe the thousands of dollars I don’t have that it may take to keep my little one above ground. They give me the green ($) light and Malti is admitted to the intensive care. I drive home and cry myself to sleep.

Bright and early the next morning I get a call from the vet tech – an amazing and life-saving being I adore named Dani who just happens to own a – wait for it – healthy, elderly red-footed tortoise. 

She tells me Malti has made a miraculous recovery. After spending just one night living in high humidity conditions with robust doses of UV-B spectrum light, she is eating – and eliminating – like a champ. Nearly all of her formerly life-threatening symptoms have ceased.

The emergency passes. Dani corrects my at-home care routine and sends us home together. We all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

But as a result, Malti has grown up with a visibly bumpy upper shell. In the world of herpetology, this is called “pyramiding.” It is a relatively common captive tortoise health issue that I knew about from the start but was absolutely sure would never happen to my little girl. Yet it did happen to her – and so quickly I literally missed it. One day, her small domed shell was smooth. The next, it seemed like, it looked like a family of gophers had moved in underneath.

This has been continually heart-breaking for me, especially when people who don’t know about pyramiding ask me “why is her shell so bumpy?” or when people who do know about pyramiding tell me “her shell shouldn’t be bumpy like that.” I know. I know I know I know.

As part of my ongoing education in caring for three flock members who each hail from completely different species, I have from time to time invited expert animal communicators to assist. Every time we schedule a session, I learn something new and wonderful about my flock mates that makes me realize yet again how I am the flock member with the most hang-ups.

The very first time Malti and I worked with a communicator, Malti introduced herself by saying, “I am a turtle. I am very important being.” I knew that, of course, but the fact that SHE knew that was life-changing.

I have also spent some time studying animal communication myself, although just like most doctors don’t treat their own family members, I will confess I struggle to actually practice what I’ve learned with my own flock.

Malti now (April 2014) with the distinctive shell bump she will have for the rest of her life.

But then the other morning I was ruminating yet again on how yet another person had asked me just the day before about Malti, “has her shell always had that big bump in it?” And I was just feeling so BAD. SAD. GUILTY.

Spontaneously, I reached out to Malti from the inside and sent her an image of the shell bump (I am told visual images can sometimes work well when communicating with animals, who are visual beings). Before the image had even really reached her, I felt her receive it and then send me an equally swift response.

“Mom. The bump doesn’t bother me. I am not my shell. I am so much more than my shell.”

Then she sent me back a visual. It was of her shell – clear, solid, very bumpy of course, completely surrounding her perfect soft inner parts like a shield. And then inside the outline of the shell, I saw her, shining with light. She showed me so clearly she is NOT the lumpy, bumpy, hard outer structure she will be trapped inside for the balance of her lifetime here on Earth.

Then she sent me a follow-up response.

“Mom. You are so much more than your shell.”

My young tortoise is so very wise.

She is so centered, balanced, steady.

As I continue to struggle through the aftermath of the breakup that happened last November, more and more I have felt her efforts to lend me her strength, poise, self-assurance and self-acceptance until I can feel at last learn to feel these things for myself.

I look into her timeless soft brown eyes and I truly believe she is so much more than her shell.

I am so much more than my shell.

You are so much more than your shell.

Today’s TakeawayDo you ever struggle with wishing your outsides – your “shell” – looked different? Or have you felt like, if only someone else in your life had done better, or at least differently, in caring for you, that you might be different in a better way? Has that thought affected your relationship with yourself and your ability to accept and love yourself? Do you have a mentor in your life who helps you remember you are so much more than your appearance?

P.S. This post is from my free monthly e-zine, “Love & Feathers & Shells & Me.” Join us by subscribing! We’d love to have you! 🙂

You Are So Much More Than Your Shell (So Am I!)

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2019). You Are So Much More Than Your Shell (So Am I!). Psych Central. Retrieved on June 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Dec 2019
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