2011.10.05 Some dime store turtles survived the dime store

Written by David Green.


A few months ago, I wrote about the pet turtles of my childhood. The first one, bought from a dime store, lived a short while. The second wandered into our yard one day and would probably have survived longer if he had avoided capture. Instead, Punchy II was moved into our turtle bowl and met his maker while in captivity. 

 I was surprised by the number of readers who had similar stories and at the request of one reader, researched why turtles are now so hard to find for sale. Concerns about the spread of salmonella from contact with turtles resulted in a Food and Drug Administration ban in 1975, barring the sale of turtles with a shell of less than four inches long.

This ban ended the practice of dime and variety stores having a small bin with dozens of wrestling turtles for sale. Since larger turtles would cost more money and need much more space, the days of widespread availability of a small cheap pet were over. But was the salmonella scare overblown?

An FDA pamphlet issued in 2008 says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 103 cases of salmonella infections between May 1, 2007 and January 18, 2008. Most of those infected were exposed to a turtle before getting sick. A recent publication issued by the state of Michigan, however, puts a happier spin on the tiny turtle.

“Getting to know Michigan” says that in 1995, the Michigan Legislature named the painted turtle Michigan’s State Reptile. “For many Michiganians, a ‘painted turtle’ is a part of their childhood,” the booklet states, adding that “Cardboard boxes, old aquariums, tin pails, quart jars, and many other containers have been home to this favorite reptile...The painted turtle is gentle and easy to handle.” 

Now, that doesn’t sound scary at all, does it? It almost sounds unpatriotic not to have a turtle. My own turtle, Punchy II, never made me sick. He certainly was gentle and easy to handle. In fact, it was my own fault for causing his death. Maybe the state and the FDA should get together and see who’s right. In the meantime, a few lucky dime store turtles have enjoyed a long life.

An Internet search turned up an article claiming to be about the “oldest dime store turtle.” A 2007 story about a turtle in McCutchanville, Ind., said it was purchased in 1949 and could fit inside a Dixie cup. “Myrtle,” 58 years old at the time of the article, had grown to 10 inches in length.

After friends showed Myrtle’s owner an article claiming the oldest dime store turtle was a youngster of 41 in Kansas, he began contacting reptile experts who told him Myrtle was probably the record holder. Myrtle’s secret for long life was eating $40 worth of night crawlers a month and two heads of lettuce a week.

Another article, which ran in the South Bend Tribune in October of 2008, tells about “Mr. T,” of Niles, Mich., who was celebrating “her” 50th birthday that month. Many years after the purchase, a veterinarian broke the news to Mr. T’s owner that “he” was a female.

That knowledge didn’t seem to bother the turtle, which was thriving on a diet of leaf lettuce, dry oatmeal flakes and something called Reptile Sticks. The writer of the article pointed out that Mr. T not only outlived the Woolworth’s store where she was purchased, but the entire Woolworth chain, which closed for good in 1997. Of course, that was a lot longer than the S. S. Kresge store in downtown Adrian where I bought the original Punchy lasted.

But the real old-age champion of dime store turtles, at least the oldest revealed by online research, is “Corky,” a resident of Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. Corky, purchased from an unnamed dime store in 1945, was donated to the zoo in 1980 and celebrated her 65th birthday July 10th of 2010.

The celebration included a parade, limbo contest, and turtle-related crafts and activities. There was also an enormous birthday card that well-wishers could sign, enabling them to add to the mail Corky was probably already receiving from AARP. The article included several photos of young children, up close and personal with Corky. Apparently, the zoo isn’t too concerned about salmonella.  

Presuming Corky is still alive, she would have turned 66 years old in July. I wonder if the FDA and CDC sent her birthday cards?

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