Pepe, our seven-year-old Red-Eared Slider, has been living with us since we first moved back to Tokyo. I found him (and his former sister Isabella, who died several months later) in a dirty tray at the side of a local pet shop near where I work. The tray had been heaped with baby turtles, half of them dead, and I was so taken aback by the apathetic treatment of the little creatures (Japan has a truly abominable record when it comes to the treatment of animals… you can go into any pet shop here and find endangered species curled up in cages… I once saw a fennec fox sleeping in a tiny cage. Needless-to-say visiting Japanese pet shops is so distressing that I avoid them whenever possible) that I decided there and then, without much thought for the consequences, to save at least two of the babies before they could die, too.
I hadn’t known that Isabella was sick, and the months that followed we watched her die a slow, labored death as her breathing faltered and froth constantly poured from her nostrils. We couldn’t find a veterinarian anywhere who would handle reptiles and so the only recourse I had was to seek help from the then very spotty Internet, through the help of reptile-lover, and expert, Melissa Kaplan. There wasn’t much that we could do, except to make Isabella’s last days as comfortable as possible.
Pepe survived, however, and graces our living room to this day. He’s put on weight. When you pick him up he feels like a large round stone, more than 20 centimeters long. He spends his days basking on the rock in the aquarium, chowing down on turtle pellets, cabbage, white shrimp, and the occasional slice of banana, and, of course, hours and days and weeks endlessly sleeping. Turtles have the basics of life down to an art and use no more energy than is necessary. I’m always amazed that with virtually no exercise Pepe puts my weight-lifting skills to shame, and when the mood strikes him he can react like lightning.
Since I spend my days working at home I’ve often had time to sit and observe him and learn bit by bit the nature of turtles and how they might perceive the world. I never knew, for instance, that when turtles move about in the water they constantly drink the water, tasting it, and since turtles are air-breathers, they can’t use smell underwater as a sense, and so seem to have evolved taste as an alternative way of locating food and making their way through murky water.
I always thought, too, that reptiles, being cold-blooded, don’t carry their own body warmth, but in winter, when Pepe sidles up against the aquarium pane, the glass fogs up with his exhaled breath and a white jet billows out just like someone drinking a cup of hot coffee.
So you’d think that with seven years of watching him I would be pretty up on his identity. After all he sits there staring back at me day in and day out, no matter the weather. So what a surprise when I looked in the aquarium the other day and spotted a white lump deposited on the back side of Pepe’s sunning rock. I poked it and discovered that it was soft, like the plastic outside of a mayonnaise tube. It was round, like a mushroom. I picked up the object and nearly dropped it. It was a turtle egg!
“How the heck…?” I said to myself. I looked back at Pepe and just stared. “Pepe, you’re a she? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Pepe said nothing, of course. She’d been vindicated, finally, after all this time of my calling her a him.
“But how did you…?” Yes, lay an egg. I mean, as far as I know Pepe had had no nightly trysts at all in the aquarium-bound existence she’d been subject to all this time. I know that Red-Eared Sliders can only mate once they reach a certain size and that sexual maturity is not determined by age, but by size (also, in general, Red-eared Sliders’ sex is determined, while they are still egg-bound, by the temperature the eggs are reared in: cooler temperatures produce males, and warmer temperatures produce females. Many paleontologists believe that the demise of the great dinosaurs might have come about because the cooler temperatures brought about by a large meteor hitting the earth might have produced too many males and not enough females), so it is highly unlikely that Pepe could have had her eggs fertilized while in that filthy tray in the store.
Later someone educated me about females producing unfertilized eggs, including the revelation that the chicken eggs that I buy in the store are all unfertilized eggs. Shows you just how out of touch with my own food sources I am!
I like to pride myself on my knowledge about animals, but then people like Pepe come around and remind me of just how many surprises I am apt to encounter in even just one representative of a single species. I could probably watch that immobile little shell of a turtle and learn something new every day if I looked hard enough. It’s sometimes easy to overlook the familiar and assume I know more than I do.
No matter how much I know or don’t know, however, Pepe’s clear and earnest eyes will continue to grab me from across the room and have me gazing back. There is a lot of wisdom in there. I guess it’s never a good idea to assume you know what someone else is thinking.