I am referring to highland terrapins, more commonly called “box turtles.” The turtle saga began about 1957 or so with an article in the Dixie Roto Sunday Magazine supplement in the Times-Picayune. The article was about box turtles in the garden and how the author used them to control the bug population. Anything that gave my mother an excuse for another pet was welcomed in our house, except by the pet-longsuffering MB, of course.
I looked at the pictures in the article and was immediately struck by the fact that I had frequently seen these box turtles while I was roaming the woods around Waveland. I made the mistake of telling my mother this and was immediately dispatched to hunt box turtles on the next weekend we were in Waveland, a task I gleefully accepted as hunting was in my blood. In short order, I collected at least a dozen box turtles, which we took back to Kenner to do bug control duty in my mother’s gardens.
What seemed like a good idea really wasn’t. The problem was our yard was not completely fenced. There was a stretch between the house and my dad’s office of about 20 feet with no fence, an obvious avenue of escape for our new bug patrol. Our solution was to identify the turtles as our own, so I painted “Casteix” on the back of each turtle’s shell with a different “serial number” for each on top. That actually worked for a while. We would get phone calls from neighbors over a block away to come and retrieve our turtle.
That got old, but MB had a solution. By then he had bought into the turtle/pet thing and knew we had to deal with the turtle escape issue to maintain peace in the household.
A couple of years previously, MB had built a “swimming pool” for the kids. It was a “swimming pool” in name only, thus the quotation marks. It was simply a concrete tub about the size of a king-sized bed and maybe 18 inches deep. Since it lacked a filtering system and any means to drain it once the water became fouled, it failed in its design function.
Now, my dad was a brilliant man in many respects. He skipped two grades in school and entered LSU two years younger than his classmates. He was a great family doctor. In the days before all these tests, he could make an accurate diagnosis of illness with only a brief examination and a few carefully worded questions. Other doctors often described him as one of the best diagnosticians they ever knew. But as a “tinkerer,” he lacked finesse, the alleged “swimming pool” is a good example.
The useless “swimming pool” would become the new home for the turtles and was christened the “turtle pond.” These were land turtles and needed “land” to live on, so MB built an island in the middle of the pool leaving a moat all around. My mother populated it with various kinds of plants and had MB erect a statue of St. Francis in the middle of the island.
The turtles moved in and thrived. My mother feeding them cat food daily must have helped. They mated and laid box turtle eggs and we had new generations of turtles! (The one in the picture is a baby.)
Eventually, my folks moved out of Kenner to River Ridge. In fact, they moved no less than four more times, and my dad had to build a new turtle pond at each house. (This was their “gypsy phase.”)
Meanwhile, I grew up, went to college, married, went in the Air Force and moved back home after discharge, settling in Old Jefferson. Finally, my dad got tired of building turtle ponds and moving turtles, so I inherited them. I wasn’t asked, I was told, “Here are your turtles.”
Well, I wasn’t about to build any turtle ponds, but I did have a fenced vegetable garden area inside my fenced yard, and the turtles went in there to “free range.” And they prospered, mated and laid box turtle eggs! Our boys learned about sex watching box turtles mate.
The turtles also came in handy for Heath’s and Ryan’s birthday parties. I would collect up as many turtles I could find, paint numbers on their shells and the kids would have turtle races. Each kid picked a turtle, which we placed in a circle in the grass. The first turtle to make it out of the circle won a prize for its “owner.” The kids loved it and those we run into years later often mention our turtle races when they were young.
Disaster struck. We had a couple of really cold winters. Box turtles bury themselves for the winter and most did not survive. But a few must have, as we would sometimes encounter a young box turtle in the yard for years after.
In 1986 we moved from that house to one about four blocks away as the crow flies. Every few years I find a box turtle roaming around the yard. When I do I release it into the fenced area of our yard. Either they get out again or are really good at hiding because I very rarely find one inside the fence again. However, last summer Janis found a baby box turtle in our garden. We must have a mated pair somewhere in our yard!
I am sure the ones I am finding today are descended from that original bunch I brought back to Kenner from Waveland.