International Turtle Day

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I’m not sure who actually gets to declare these “days”. But whoever does saw fit to designate May 23rd as International Turtle Day; and it befits a blog as catholic and diverse as the Dawg’s to recognize and honour the occasion. Others will no doubt weigh in with more significant turtle tales; but my my only contribution to turtle lore is the tale of Greeny Nowdlak, the only turtle ever medevaced from the Arctic.

Greeny was a Woolworth’s turtle. Anyone remember Woolworth’s? Anyone remember the big turtle tanks that used to greet shoppers when you entered the store? Green-yellow weedy water, a mild scent of rot and ammonia, and hundreds of little green turtles, about the size of toonies, doggedly climbing mossy plastic towers and toppling off, until they were scooped into plastic baggies and sent to suburban homes to die.

My friend Henry was an exceptionally gifted Inuit cameraman/producer living in what was then Frobisher Bay, NWT. He had an artist’s eye, a broadcaster’s iron liver, and a true videographer’s fearlessness; he once killed a camera, and almost himself, hanging over the edge of a boat circling an iceberg off Pond Inlet. Destroyed the lens and a finger trying to get Just The Right Shot at high speed while steering the boat himself.

As it happened, I was the agent of destiny who brought Greeny and Henry together. We had just gotten back to Ottawa at the end of a two-week shoot in Kotzebue, Alaska, and Henry was on his way home to Frobisher. On the way to the airport, I drove Henry to Woolworth’s on Spark Street to replenish his supply of socks. When he came back to the car, he was carrying Greeny. “He wants to see the North,” said Henry. “Will they let you take that on the plane?” I asked. “I can put him in my thermos,” said Henry. It was 1984, a more innocent time, kinder to turtles.

The life expectancy of a Woolworth’s turtle in the south was about three weeks. But in Frobisher Bay, Greeny thrived. Perhaps the key was his active social life. Henry used to bring him up to the Zoo, the infamous bar at the Frobisher Inn, place him on the table, and we’d watch him puddle around happily all night between the ashtrays and empties in the little pools of spilled beer. He never seemed any worse for the partying, and at the end of each evening, Henry would put Greeny in his mouth to keep him warm and moist, hop on his snowmobile, and drive home. (We all prayed for a bump-free ride, for the sake of both Henry and Greeny, and no harm ever befell them.)

Greeny survived for an extraordinary six months in Frobisher. But his hard living and the alien environment finally caught up with him. Henry reported one day at story meeting that Greeny was acting “funny”. How a turtle acts “funny” was never clear, but Henry just knew. All agreed we should try to get Greeny south for better veterinary attention that Frobisher could offer.

In those days everyone in Frobisher Bay knew everyone, and we all helped each other. We arranged to meet the Nordair flight crew at the Navigator Hotel’s Chinese Buffet. Henry explained the situation and enlisted their assistance. We went back to the workshop that night and built a small, heated plastic box, foam lined, with a water tubule, a tiny battery powered light inside for warmth, and a clear plastic window. Henry emblazoned it with a large red duct tape cross. Next day the flight crew carried Greeny on board, and upon arrival in Ottawa, a kindly flight attendant delivered Greeny to the Alta Vista Animal Hospital.

Friends, I wish the story had a happier ending. But Greeny, apparently, was suffering from acute Vitamin D deficiency, and despite what I’m sure were heroic efforts by the Alta Vista team, perished within a couple of days of his return to the verdant land of his birth.

Life moved on. Greeny was surreptitiously buried under a popsicle-stick cross in a tulip bed beside the Rideau Canal, with a lovely view of Pretoria Bridge. Henry initially considered acquiring a python to take Greeny’s place, but was eventually persuaded by Leonie, his partner, to settle for a budgie, which escaped custody two days after its arrival and was eaten by ravens. But that’s a story for International Songbird Day.

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This page contains a single entry by Balbulican published on May 23, 2013 10:21 PM.

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