Ernie the Turtle

by Allen Hackworth   


Not in 100 years could I have predicted what happened in my backyard during September 1997. For me, truth really is stranger than fiction. At dusk I was burning the branches I had pruned earlier in the summer from our apple trees. These branches were piled neatly yet irregularly between two trees on the periphery of our property. After starting a fire in the barbecue pit, I walked to the wood pile and gathered some leaf-laden branches to add to the fire. The branches were now dry enough for burning. As the branches burned, at regular intervals, I retrieved more branches. Eventually, the pile was gone.

I inspected the place where the pile had been, making sure I picked up all the small branches too. However, as I glanced at the soft, warm earth which was strewn with dry, brown leaves, I saw a tan, convex rock. I crouched low to examine the rock, studying its fascinating patterns. “What the heck!” This rock slowly transformed into a turtle. “Maybe it’s an empty shell,” I thought. As I reached out and lifted the cold, smooth shell, I detected the solid heft of a living creature. Hot dog! In all my life, I had NEVER found a turtle. And this turtle was big and in my backyard. Immediately I named this mighty tyke, Ernie.

What a hunk was this fellow, ugly and tough, having an ancestral history that stretched back in time for 165 million years. His grandparents were shuffling and shifting around during the times of the dinosaurs. This mild-mannered reptile was deceptively simple. He seemed incapable of rapid movement, yet when I forgot to watch him closely, he always disappeared into piles of grass on the edge of my property. When I thought he could never crawl over the cement border that flanks the edge of my lawn, in an eye blink, he plopped over the barrier.

After I found Ernie, I suspected he might be hungry, so I used the Internet to learn about turtles. Much to my surprise, in addition to cabbage, lettuce, carrots, small slices of grapes, apples and cheese, turtles also like night crawlers. Why, this chubby rascal was a meat eater. After dark, I took a flashlight outside to find a succulent, wiggly night crawler. I found such a worm and took it to Ernie.

Ernie was in his bucket acting lazy, deeply bored, and indifferent. But when I dropped the worm in front of his face, like a old man waking from his slumber, Ernie became animated. His fat, awkward legs extended their full length, and like the supporting arms of a backhoe, they lifted Ernie’s heavy body off the floor. At the same time, Ernie stretched his fleshy, wrinkled neck, extending his head two inches from inside his shell. Standing perfectly still like a statue, the ancient hunter stood at attention, holding his head high,. All the while, the worm was stretching, sliding, and shifting of the floor of the bucket.


Ernie then positioned his bulky body so that his reptilian head was near the front of the night crawler. Then with the speed of a chicken pecking at a bug, Ernie grabbed the worm into his mouth. Immediately, the worm began to thrash, coil, and twist, but Ernie held on. After about five seconds, again, with great speed and skill, Ernie lunged his neck and head downward to get another bite of the worm. While Ernie held the end of the worm in his mouth, he worked the distressed victim down his throat. In a series of thrusts, gulps, swallow, and backwards shifts of his body, Ernie eventually consumed the whole worm. It was an exhilarating experience for Ernie, but a traumatic one for the worm.

During the process, Ernie was distracted by nothing. He displayed the concentration and determination of a retriever in mad pursuit of a duck. But now he was at rest. Ernie was pleased and contented, and soon, he had a good poop. But little did I know that his excrements would play such a vital role in what happened next.

I often make false assumptions, and while dealing with Ernie, this was certainly true. I made two serious mistakes. First, I assumed a fat worm would be enough food to sustain a turtle for a day or two. But this was not the case. Apparently Ernie was still hungry, because he ate own waste. At the time, I saw no problem with such disgusting behavior. It just tidied up his pen. Also, I thought it was a turtle’s way to conserve food: digest it twice or three or four times for that matter, and get every available molecule of nutrition.

But this was a poor choice for Ernie’s diet, and it resulted in his developing an intestinal disorder. The intestinal disorder gave Ernie a serious case of constipation. But I was not vigilant enough to know what was happening. The next day I fed Ernie four fat worm because I thought he would enjoy them more than turtle dung. Although Ernie ate the new worms, he did not have the speed and enthusiasm of the previous day. Later in the day, Ernie began to swell. His neck, head, torso, and legs expanded like a party balloon. Consequently, he could not stand, and his fat legs pointed out horizontally from his puffy body. Children stretch their arms in a similar fashion when they are trying to fly.

I then made a second faulty assumption. I knew about a man who saved the life of a bloated cow by thrusting a knife into the cow’s belly. I thought such an operation would be useful for Ernie. Of course, I would not use a knife, only a large needle.

I carefully and lovingly inserted the needle, and that was the end of Ernie. He immediately exploded and spread himself in several directions throughout my wife’s kitchen. My wife, Loni, is still angry, and I’m still cleaning that ubiquitous turtle from spots high and low throughout the room.

Of course, you can learn several important things about turtle care after reading this story. But perhaps the point that will be most useful is this: if you must pop a turtle, NEVER do it in your wife’s kitchen.