A Painted Lady Comes to Live With Me

Posted on September 24, 2012


How often do you find a western painted turtle soaking up some warmth on your driveway? Or a turtle of any kind. In the 14 years that we have lived in the Okanagan, we have never seen one in our neighbourhood. Sure, we had seen them a few times on ponds away from the city, “soaking up some rays” on a weathered, fallen tree limb or rock, but not exposed and vulnerable on a concrete slab. My heart instantly wanted to help the little soul out.

From information we received from our friends across the street, this little creature (whom we have now dubbed generic-neutral Zippy), was first spotted on their driveway the day before it showed up on ours. Now this is no small feat considering the little gal (?) had to maneuver down a long, steep driveway, across a busy roadway, and up another driveway before we found it. That’s tenacity and very good luck. Never having any experience with turtles, Hubby and I placed it in a large plastic container and quickly shuttled it to our backyard pond. After its long, hot journey we figured it could use a big, cool one – like a frosty cocktail or beer – and at the very least we’d introduce the traveller to a water source for the evening.

As twilight lapsed into darkness, the last we saw of Zippy that first night was her shell slowly motoring up the back slope of our garden. I figured she was on a mission, a lady of the night so to speak, looking for some amorous yet brief encounter on the other side of our fence, perhaps a liaison between the shrubs of another neighbouring pond. (Doesn’t anyone write any soap operas about turtles anymore? Sigh.)

Zippy’s catching a few rays on a warm afternoon.

The next morning, while feeding our fish, I noticed with surprise a small dark object moving from behind a water plant in the smaller basin of our waterfall. Zippy was back and seemed quite content to swim in the shallow water! I watched as she moved to where the water current spilled over to the larger pond. Like one of the wake boarders out on the lake in summer, Zippy tucked herself neatly inside her shell and proceeded to dive over the spillway in a Niagara Falls fashion. I should have known Zippy was an adrenaline junky.

Reptiles, on the whole, tweak my curiosity even though I happily give them a wide berth – especially the ones with razor teeth and quick reflexes. I have heard of snapping turtles that have taken off a finger when disturbed. Still, Zippy intrigued me enough to do some on-line research about the western painted variety of turtles and how they are portrayed in different cultures.

According to the painted turtle’s bio, Zippy is an adult female (at about 6 inches long) but not fully grown yet (up to 10 inches). Since we have not had an intimate relationship with her since her arrival, I relied on web photos to show the attractive underbelly (“plastron”) of red and yellow striped designs that distinguish it. (Turtles aren’t willing to expose their underbellies to just anyone you know!)

The beautiful “plaston” underside of a western painted turtle.

They enjoy basking in the sunshine on rocks and logs near the water, which helps them get rid of parasites like leeches. (I, too, hate parasites and leeches with their loud music and alcohol at the beach.) Painted turtles also develop hibernation patterns in the winter, burying themselves in the mud at the bottom of ponds and lakes. (I prefer to bury myself under a heavy comforter when chilly winter nights come – but each to her own.) Zippy and her relatives are omnivorous, meaning they’ll consume both aquatic animals like worms, bugs and small fish, as well as plants. (Good to hear that there’s more to life than salads 24/7.)

Remind you of “Yertle the Turtle”?

But then I found out about the breeding habits of the western painted turtle. Once a year, often initiated by the female, there’s a quick 5 to 15 minute foreplay of face tickling with the male’s long claws on the female’s face (?!), the pair sink to the bottom of the pond, and it’s over. (That’s so wrong, on so many levels, and it just destroys the drama and scandal of a lady of the night dealing in clandestine meetings by the waterside. Sigh.) After laying 4 to 15 eggs in a nest she’s had to scratch out herself (where’s the help?), she has to hope predators or freezing weather don’t find and kill the hatchlings. The odds of survival aren’t very good, and the cycle continues the next spring. It’s an abbreviated version of finding Mr. Right, I guess.

I do like the symbolism that a turtle has in many cultures though. In American Indian culture, the turtle is symbolic of the caring wisdom of the elders and is revered for its protective strength. Because of its long lifespan, (anywhere from 5 to 10 years with a painted turtle living in the wild and up to 30 years in captivity), it is an ancient symbol of endurance, stability, longevity and good fortune. What better self-defense mechanism than to withdraw into its shell? Turtles are often portrayed as wise yet carefree souls, plodding along. I think I’d like to have those characteristics over my lifetime too.

Here’s a couple of quotes I think Zippy would love:

Life just happens and the turtle can accept it for what it is – he always manages to say calm. — Anon. 

Try to be like the turtle – at ease in your own shell. — Bill Copeland