By Kathleen Millat Johnson
Photos by Marie Rodriguez
Dogs and cats have been known to live twenty years or more, but turtles are a different story. Nancy Baker of West Ashley and her Eastern Box turtle, Mert, have been together for 59 years! Aware that these turtles may live to be a century old, Nancy isn’t taking any chances. If Mert lives longer than she does, Nancy has lined up her niece to adopt Mert.
“I asked Sara if she would take Mert and she said, ‘Yes,’” explains Nancy, noting the request will be in her will. “It’s nice knowing that Mert will be with family.”
The Love Story Begins
Mert, a Terrapine carolina carolina species, has a long history of being a part of the Baker family. It was in 1959, on a family trip from Chicago to Arkansas, that Nancy and her sister Marilee saw a number of dead and maimed turtles killed by cars on the highway. The sisters begged their dad to let them save one.
“‘No!’ He kept telling us over and over,” Nancy recounts. “At a rest stop my sister and I snuck one into the car. When Dad realized there was a turtle in the back seat, well, let’s just say he wasn’t happy.”
Mert went with the Baker family on vacation and returned home to Glen Ellyn, Illinois, to live many years in their home.
Happy Mert Memories
“My mom was an animal lover. She was the one who took care of Mert,” Nancy says. “She would carry Mert around under her cardigan. It gave visitors quite a shock when Mert’s head peeked out!”
Another shock came, after ten years with the Bakers, when Mert laid an egg. “We were so sure Mert was a male. After the egg, we tried changing her name to Myrtle but it never stuck. It was too late. Mert was Mert!” says Nancy.
Mert Moves to Charleston
Upon moving to the Lowcountry two years ago, Nancy was also surprised that Mert stopped hibernating. “Every year from November to April, Mert would hibernate,” Nancy notes. “She didn’t eat, drink or move for four months. Now that we are living in the South, she’s active all year long.”
Each morning Nancy heads to Mert’s enclosure and greets her with breakfast and cheery conversation. Mert responds by extending her neck and rolling her head up towards Nancy to see what’s being served.
Meals include a selection of waxworms, earthworms, fruits and vegetables—though Mert is a discriminating turtle when it comes to blueberries. Nancy reports that Mert is able to delicately peel off the skin of the berry with her beak, eating only the juicy part and leaving the rest behind.
For exercise and stimulation, Mert roams around the house. Her roommates, Nancy’s shepherd mix dog, Misty, and cat, Bunny, are accustomed to the turtle’s presence. After all, Mert was in the home long before they arrived and is respected as the “old timer.” Recently, Nancy observed Bunny sitting next to Mert as both contentedly watched the world go by.
Having Mert as a companion has given Nancy many enriching experiences with a chance to educate people concerning turtles. She recently took Mert to her church to show her off to the children at Sunday School. The adults were also curious to see a turtle close up and to learn the personal story of Mert’s rescue and long life with the Bakers.
Saving the Eastern Box Turtle
Mert has thrived for 59 years after being rescued from certain death, however even Nancy agrees that modern research proves it’s never the best idea to take any wild creature out of their natural habitat. These turtles are more delicate than they look and don’t do well as children’s pets because they have to be handled so carefully. Turtles can also carry salmonella bacteria, so hygiene and clean hands when interacting with them are a must.
With a growing concern over illegal activity and acquiring and selling Eastern Box turtles, the entire United States, except South Carolina, has outlawed their sale. South Carolina is actually the only state where a limited number can be legally captured and sold.
Additionally, there is concern over the lack of proper care for turtles by pet owners who have no knowledge of their needs. Besides the basics, Eastern Box turtles’ needs include basking in sunlight or ultraviolet light for vitamin D, water to soak in, a varied diet and even a monitored atmosphere for correct humidity. Visits to an exotic pet veterinarian are also required to check on health issues, such as parasites and diseases or, in Mert’s case, a beak trim
Though Mert’s story is heartwarming, if you see a turtle in danger on the road, please do not take it home or turn it back. Instead, help it continue in the direction it is going. These turtles are determined to complete their mission to find a mate or to lay a clutch of eggs. They know exactly where they want to go and that’s across that road!
For more information, visit the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources website at dnr.sc.gov for a summary of turtle laws regarding possession and sales. You might also want to look up Boykin Spaniels and their newly discovered talent for finding these turtles in the field and bringing them to wildlife authorities where they can be counted and examined for health and population numbers.
The Eastern Box Turtle
- An Eastern Box turtle’s gender can be determined by the color of their eyes: red eyes are male and brown eyes are female.
- Ages can be determined by counting the ridges on the top shell, which are like the concentric rings in a tree stump.
- This species is able to protect itself by pulling in its extremities and locking the top and bottom shells together with a hinge. Its compact shape gives it the name of “box “turtle.
- These small turtles (approx. 8 inches), which were once so plentiful in the wild and in gardens of the Eastern half of the United States, are now in danger. Some States have categorized them as vulnerable or endangered. This is due to land development, building construction and pesticides. Unfortunately, they are still being hit by cars as they make their way over roads to get to their nesting or mating sites.