2011.07.27 Hopefully, sacred turtle avoids fate of Punchy II

Written by David Green.

By RICH FOLEY

Recently, I’ve seen news reports about the super-rare, legendary turtle struggling for its life in a Vietnamese lake. I can’t help but remember another turtle over 40 years ago who didn’t survive the well-meaning attempts of a human to care for it. Yes, I’m talking about a much younger me.

Older readers will remember the days when every variety or dime store around would have a container of small turtles in its pet section. Usually, there would be dozens of them, having impromptu wrestling matches as all wanted to be on top of the turtle pile.

One time, my brother and I were each allowed to select one to bring home. I recall them costing something like 69 cents each. I named mine Punchy, as it seemed to like swatting my brother’s turtle with one of his front legs. After they eventually passed on, their bowl sat empty for awhile, until one day another small turtle was discovered in our yard.

He was immediately moved into our empty turtle habitat and christened “Punchy II.” Things went well for a year or so until one day, the turtle bowl needed cleaning. I put Punchy II into my Radio Flyer wagon, parked it in a shady spot, and went to work cleaning his algae-encrusted home.

 Punchy II seemed to enjoy exploring all the extra space my wagon provided, compared to his bowl. When I was called inside for lunch, I left him in the wagon while the water-filled turtle bowl soaked. I figured after lunch, I could finish scrubbing the bowl and return him to his newly-clean home. That was the day I learned about the rotation of the Earth.

When I went back outside, Punchy II’s temporary home was now located in blazing sunlight, and my poor, trusting turtle was...do I have to paint you a picture? All these years later, I still feel guilty about it. I suppose that’s why the story about the turtle in Vietnam caught my eye and sent me on a guilt trip.

Only four Rafetus swinhoei soft-shell turtles are known to exist. The fourth one was discovered earlier this year in a northern Vietnamese lake. Two are in Chinese zoos. The one in the news lives in Hoan Kiem (“Returned Sword”) Lake near downtown Hanoi.

Vietnamese legend tells of a giant turtle who gave the people a magic sword and victory over invaders from China back in the 1500’s. Hoan Kiem Lake is the lake legend says the sacred turtle emerged from to accept the sword back from the emperor after the victory. The city of Hanoi grew around the lake as people wanted to live near the home of the turtle. 

 It is considered a blessing to see the turtle when it surfaces, but recent sightings, which were occurring more frequently, showed the turtle to be suffering from “raw, open wounds on its head, legs and shell,” according to an Associated Press report. Biologists fear that lake pollution, including raw sewage and people using the lake as a urinal, is slowly killing the Hoan Kiem turtle. And since none of the four survivors live together, even if there’s a female among them, we’re not getting a next generation. It seems these are the final four. 

In April, several dozen people gathered at the lake to try to capture the turtle and treat its wounds and any other health conditions. That wasn’t as easy as it might seem. The turtle, described as being roughly the size of a car door or desk with a human-size head and weighing about 400 pounds, broke through two sets of nets. Finally, a special forces soldier, one of several helping with the capture, grabbed the turtle’s shell and rode it briefly to slow it down, allowing the third net to stop it.

A pen in a makeshift “hospital” on an island in the middle of the lake was used as home for the turtle. An expert who was part of the capture operation says the turtle, probably over 100 years old, generally is in good condition and stable. After treatment and an attempt to clean up the lake, the turtle was released back into it earlier this month. Was that the best course of action? I can’t help thinking about the precedent of Punchy II.

My own turtle would have lived longer if I had just left him alone in his slimy bowl rather than remove him to clean it. Could well-meaning “experts” messing with his environment actually hurt the Vietnamese turtle? That remains to be seen, but for now, I have something new to worry about. Do you think Punchy II is waiting for me in Heaven with a magic sword, eager for revenge?

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