Take a trip in the tortoise time machine

Not the tortoise in question, but this is a shelled beast from Brazil. (Janaina C. Falkiewicz, Creative Commons license)

This is not the Rip Van Tortoise in question, but it is a shelled beast from Brazil. (Janaina C. Falkiewicz, Creative Commons license)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Think back to childhood. Do you remember that one nontraditional pet you had? I’m not talking about a dog or cat here. Dogs and cats see their names stitched in Christmas stockings. They wear sacred vestments, such as collars and sweaters. Dogs and cats insist upon themselves in ways that caged animals usually don’t. Non-traditional pets, the kind that live in adorable prisons, are a different matter.

For instance, my sisters and I had a chameleon, a guinea pig and several hamsters.

Each critter met an unfortunate end. The hamster had babies, ate some and died. The other babies died. They said the guinea pig went back to the pet store, but he had lived with us for many years and I have come to doubt that story. The chameleon was a living rainbow, and died the way rainbows do: dried up in the sun.

This month, the Almeida family in Rio de Janeiro enjoyed the strangest, most unexpected reunion we’ve heard about in some time. According to a story in the London Telegraph, circulated on other wire services around the world, the Almeidas held a premature funeral for a very tough and extremely quiet pet.

The year was 1982. Here on the Mesabi Iron Range of Northern Minnesota, mines idled as part of a global steel depression. Phones attached by cords to wood grain paneling in houses that received three TV channels, maybe four. Ronald Reagan was president and the Hibbing Daily Tribune was produced with typewriters and lead. Meantime, in Brazil (the world’s *other* Iron Range) the Almeidas lost their pet tortoise Manuela.

In this, the story is familiar. Remodeling. Change in the household. An open door. The beloved family pet, despite its low speed and lower jumping ability, slipped away in the night. Tireless searching produced no answers. The terrapin was no where to be found. Gone, never to be forgotten.

Time is a highway traveled by fate. Years have passed. Brazil has become an emerging world power. The mines on Minnesota’s Iron Range reopened, mostly, attuned to a new economic order dictated in part by Brazilian iron and steel. And that gawl-dang tortoise never died. She was in a storage room the whole time.

That’s right, Manuela never left the house. She crawled into a room that was falling out of use, a place where dad would store old junk he picked up here and there. Because tortoises can go long periods without eating, 2-3 years even, she was able to derive enough nutrition to survive from termites.

Her owner, now grown with children of her own, said she turned white the moment she realized this was the same tortoise from her past. And I can relate. All I have to do is think of a room somewhere where Beach Boy, my chameleon; Patches, our guinea pig, and Garlic, our hamster, still live.

Far beyond their natural lives, these unlucky animals have endured, watching with quiet judgement at the man I have become. Have I earned their lives in captivity? Have I absolved myself of the crimes that took them from the jungles, or wherever hamsters are from (Are they Dutch? They seem Dutch).

What can we say to the strange pets we honestly thought we would take care of, now that they are back among us? Will we confront these truths, or turn our backs. Only the owners of Manuela, the tortoise, know the answer to this burning question.

I’m sorry, Patches. I’m sorry, Garlic. I’m especially sorry to you, Beach Boy. You never belonged in our trailer house. You deserved to be running free in the jungles of South America from whence you came, where your only known predators were … probably tortoises. I guess some animals just can’t catch a break.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Saturday, Sept. 28, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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