An Ode To My Pet Turtle: Swimmy, The Red-Eared Slider

Growing up with a mom who really loves animals, my siblings and I have had quite the menagerie of pets over the years. When I was really young, I remember our basement always being occupied by at least one of these critters, and we collectively did our best to give them the happiest lives we could. Granted, at late nights it would make going down there to play video games a little creepy, but as I saw it, it meant there was always an extra someone around to keep you company.

One of the first major pets to occupy the basement was a red-eared slider turtle: I named him Swimmy. I was about five at the time and was at the peak of my turtle obsession that I remember my childhood being riddled with. I’d wear turtle shirts, draw pictures of turtles, and even carried around a stuffed-animal turtle, which in retrospect I hope Swimmy didn’t think was the future I had in store for him. It’s a time of my life that I’ll always look back upon with fondness, amusement, and a slight amount of cringe.

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The trifecta of my childhood: sippy cup, GameBoy, and turtle.

Funny story how we got Swimmy though; Since I was so turtle-obsessed during my early years, I would frequently pester my mom to buy me one when we’d go to the pet store to pick up supplies for Speedy, the hamster we had at the time. And walking the isles, she’d always say the same thing back to me.

“No.”

But back then to five-year-old me, her words provided little deterrent to my desires to own a turtle. Not that they mattered though: there wasn’t a store around that ever seemed to have them for sale. Either way, I’d still ask every time we went to one and would always eagerly dash to the reptile section hoping in vain that I’d see one swimming in a tank. Regardless of my consistent disappointments, I preserved.

On a particular supply run to the store, like every other trip, things started innocently enough. In the car, I’d start by running through my usual requests for a pet, but for some reason on that day in a decision that would haunt her for the next thirteen years every time she’d clean the tank, my mother agreed to make a deal with me. Knowing that I’d never before actually seen one for sale, she said that if I could find a turtle in the store, she’d find a way to get it for me.

Guess who ended up going home with a turtle that day?

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Awww.

Swimmy was about the size of a quarter when we brought him home. We set him up with a matching tiny tank in the basement full of warm water, a heating lamp, and a rocky platform for him to climb and bask on. As a kid, I’d love taking him out and letting him run around my sister’s room (not my room, of course. Who knows where those claws have been!?). As soon as I’d place him on the floor, he’d do this thing where he’d retreat into his shell and then suddenly start making mad dashes across the carpet. He could actually move pretty quickly, in fact, and my sister and I would sometimes set up a divided racetrack out of blocks to see who between him and Speedy could reach the finish line first.

Speedy won every time though, hence his name.

Still, Swimmy was a lot of fun to play with, at first. Small and easy to pick up, things started to get a bit complicated when he started growing. With a few years passing, what had originally been the size of a quarter could now match a teacup plate. We had to get him a much bigger tank and keeping him clean and healthy started to become a pretty big chore, especially for my mother, who, God bless her, cared for Swimmy the most over the years (love you, Mom! <3).

I was also getting older and unfortunately had grown out of my turtle obsession and into other things. Whereas I’d usually come home from school eager to check up on my pet, now I was looking forward to spending time up in my room doing things like reading, playing Pokemon on my GameBoy Advance, or discovering the wonders of the internet. Downstairs in the basement, Swimmy now mostly kept company with the plethora of other pets that came through our house.

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I also, for a while, joined the crew of the USS Enterprise.

Amongst the hamsters, salamanders, and a cockatiel, Swimmy was always the constant. According to a quick Google search, red-eared sliders have a lifespan of thirty years in the wild, but as pets can reach fifty. My two year passion had turned into potentially a half-century commitment for my family, and every so often I’d find myself questioning his sanity with all the animals he’d see coming and going over the years. I liked to imagine him having a running British inner monologue, where he’d narrate the daily struggles of his life. It probably went something like this:

“Today I ate some lettuce and swam around. Also, another hamster moved in. Just like the three that came before it… it won’t last long.”

That got dark really quickly.

Anyway, despite not getting taken out of the tank nearly as often as when we got him, my mother and I were apparently still doing a pretty good job of taking care of him. So much so, that one day after school over dinner my mom dropped a bomb that flipped my entire life upside down.

“You know, I found some eggs in Swimmy’s tank today.”

Oh my gosh! Swimmy had managed to get out of his tank, climb all the way up to our refrigerator, steal some eggs, and get back into the basement without any one of us noticing! I better dust off my video camera and get ready to submit my America’s Got Talent audition video, because he was gonna win us the million!

No, Swimmy was actually just a girl.

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Swimmy was getting to be pretty big.

So apparently this is a thing that female turtles sometimes do: even without a mate, they still lay eggs. I guess he she got jealous of the cockatiel she shared a room with who was doing the same thing. The news was a pretty big shock to me and my siblings though, but nothing really changed. Since they were never going to hatch, we threw out the eggs and gave Swimmy some extra lettuce in exchange. She seemed pretty okay with that.

I bet there are a bunch of people reading this waiting for the moment where I’m going to get serious all of a sudden and talk about how Swimmy died. Well, the truth is, I actually have no idea if she is currently alive or not. Her life ended up taking quite a bit of a turn when I was starting my college experience.

Swimmy had been in our lives for over thirteen years at this point, but the chore of cleaning her tank was starting to become a really mountainous burden, especially considering the fact that she was now the size of a small dinner plate and was requiring exceedingly larger tanks. My parents were starting to drop frequent hints about the possibility of giving her away to a different family. To their credit, it wasn’t like she was getting played with that often. As a teenager, I had other things on my mind and wasn’t taking many breaks to pull her out of her tank and let her run around anymore. Sure I was doing my part by feeding and checking up on her, but that was really as far as her social stimulation with me went most days. In the back of my mind, I knew a different family with small kids, preferably one in the early stages of a turtle obsession, would be able to appreciate her more than I was.

But that’s not what ended up happening.

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“When I grow up, I want to be a bird!”

It was 2014 and I was enjoying my summer overseas in Israel with Birthright. One night, I got a call from my mother. Our conversation went something like this.

“Hey Adam, how’s the trip going?”

“Good. How’s everyone doing back home?”

“They’re fine, but something happened today with Swimmy.”

“…What do you mean?”

While Mom was cleaning Swimmy’s tank, a closet door came off its hinges and fell on the cage, shattering it. Swimmy was fine, but had to be placed in a different tank, a much smaller one. Mom then told me that she’d made a deal with a camp to let them take her on as a pet for their nature program (Swimmy, not my mom. That’d be weird. Can you imagine her in a cage staring at people passing by?) until she could either find a new home for her, or get a replacement tank. I didn’t like the arraignment, but I understood it and agreed that it was a reasonable decision. And hey, it’d be nice for Swimmy to be in an environment where she’d be able to get the full attention she deserved.

One of the reasons I also agreed to let the camp take her was because I knew that I’d be spending the rest of my summer working at a pizza store right by it. Once I got there, I eagerly started asking visiting campers how she was doing and if they’d gotten the chance to take her out of the cage and play with her. In between my shock of being told that Swimmy had been renamed (!?!?!?!?!), I was satisfied to hear that she was a big hit at the camp, and that everyone loved getting to hold her and watching her swim around.

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I also had a new pet at this point.

I was looking forward to checking up on Swimmy myself, but my work requirements rarely let me do so. On my last day however, I made certain that I would have the opportunity to stop by to say hello and check up on her myself. I wasn’t thinking much of it, as my Mom and I agreed that we were going to be taking her home a few days later when camp ended, but when I arrived at the nature area, I found her tank empty.

I can’t quite describe the feelings I felt in that moment. It was a total heart-drop, and then a rush of reassurance and hope. A feeling like, “oh, of course. She’s probably out with the campers somewhere.” But then I couldn’t stop staring at the cage. It wasn’t just empty, but totally dry, like nothing had been in it for a while.

It was later that I was told the truth. You see, about a week earlier the area the camp was situated in had been the victim of a power outage. I remember it vividly because the pizza store had been affected as well. At the time I thought it just meant that our team had to work double-time to replace all the dough and other such supplies that were spoiled by the lack of refrigeration, but apparently there was a lot more that went on that no one bothered to tell me about. Back at the camp, the outage caused Swimmy’s filter to conk out. Well, rather than call and ask us how to fix it, the nature person made the entirely sane decision that there was no other alternative, but to release Swimmy into the camp’s lake.

Sorry, I’m getting emotional. I’m still not entirely over it.

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I may have run out of pictures of Swimmy, so please enjoy this unrelated snap of me posing with my siblings and favorite Pokemon, who is a lot bigger than I imagined.

I wasn’t as emotionally attached to Swimmy as I was when I was five, but she was still someone who had been around for the majority of my life. Many late Saturday nights, she was the one keeping my brother and I company as we played Super Smash Bros until we’d keel over from exhaustion. Losing her sill kinda stung in that unpleasant way.

The only small piece of relief that my mother and I could take from the situation was the fact that over the years we’d fed Swimmy live feeder fish, so she knew how to hunt. Granted a lake is a lot different from a small cage, but it’s still something that we’d take a little solace from in the hopes that somehow, someway, she’s still out there, swimming around and doing turtle things. I like to imagine that she’s worked her way up to becoming ruler over the lake; my mental images usually involve her wearing a crown and holding a scepter. Even if she didn’t make it, at least she got to experience a free life outside of her tank for once…

So yeah, I know this story is a little anticlimactic, but I just wanted to close it by saying that if anyone who visits the camp sees her one day by the lake… tell her I’m sorry I thought she was a boy for seven years.

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