A turtle named Sue, well, Johnny Sue

An Eastern box turtle trains dogs to protect other turtles from mowers on conservation land.

Rangers built a safe home for Johnny Sue at Cedar Tree Neck. — Gabrielle Mannino

Updated August 8

The achy-breaky heart part about adopting a turtle for a pet is that, cute as they are, they will never reciprocate our fond feelings for them. 

Recently I found myself in the parking lot of Cedar Tree Neck with three conservationists who had taken over the care of an Eastern box turtle. Her name alone makes you love her: Johnny Sue. She’s the size of a grapefruit, with gorgeous canary yellow glyphs against a dark olive shell and, without any tendency to slam back inside her “box” for safety, she waved her arms in greeting, and elongated her neck to stare at me with bulgy brown eyes.

“I think she likes me!” I told Julie Russell with the Land Bank, animal whisperer Karen Ogden, and park ranger Kristen Fauteaux Geagan with her newborn baby daughter nestled in her arms. But Ogden shook her head. “Turtles don’t like anyone. Even their own babies.” After their eggs hatch on the beach or in the field, mother turtles walk away from them, she told me.

“Well, what about the partner who helped her produce the eggs?” I asked, thinking I had a good point. “They’ve got to spend a little time getting to know one another?” In my mind I heard the melody for “Some Enchanted Evening.”

But all three women shook their heads. Mating was a function a male and female turtle did pretty much on their way to other errands. And females had an odd fallback. They could retain the male’s sperm for up to several years before letting the deposit go to fertilize whatever eggs were available at the time. But didn’t this bespeak a kind of sentimental … something?

Johnny Sue was seized in a raid by Mass. Environmental Police, from an individual who was keeping a number of Eastern box turtles and Diamondback terrapins illegally. The animals were in poor health and were turned over to the Cape Cod Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in West Barnstable for veterinary care. Because the turtles were collected from unknown locations as well as unknown genetic populations, they could not be released back into the wild.

One of the most prevalent ways for humans to unintentionally clobber turtles is to mow them accidentally in fields and meadows. Eastern box turtles have been listed as a “species of critical concern” in Massachusetts, and many organizations are working hard to not only preserve and maintain suitable habitats, but also to provide accurate information and education to the public. These turtles are illegal to be kept as pets; Cedar Tree rangers attained a special permit issued by the National Heritage Program — a division of Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife — to keep Johnny Sue for detection trainings, which we’ll get into later.

Now the cutie pie — my new turtle friend — resided in a 4-foot by 5-foot wooden spa, with a mesh cover, deer-tongue grass for shade, some sand, some gravel, and an XXL terra cotta tank with water for bathing — not too much; they can’t swim — and rocks for suntanning. We took turns holding Johnny Sue in open palms, as she and I deepened our bond. Ogden repeatedly returned her to home sweet home, where she quickly burrowed out of sight. Hmm, maybe she wasn’t so keen on our company?

And still I sued for the turtle’s capacity for affection: “But wouldn’t she like another turtle to hang out with in her emporium?” 

Russell shook her head: “Chances are good she’d climb on the new pal and bite him or her on an exposed piece of neck.”

So what do they eat? Slugs and worms and snails. Yum. In the winter the rangers feed Johnny Sue wet dog food. Eastern box turtles are native to this area. They’re heat-loving turtles and, in the winter, they’ll burrow under leaves in a process called brumation. (Hold on to that word “brumation.” It’s bound to impress someone.) Johnny Sue gets taken into Geagan’s nearby home, where the snowbird of a turtle spends a lethargic few months.

Johnny is reckoned to be 40-plus years old. You can count the rings on a turtle’s scute — that’s one of the squares on their shells — but it’s all a bit conjectural. They can live to 100, so I suggested to the three conservationists that they name a legatee for their special rescue, and further proposed that Geagan’s baby daughter would be the ideal choice.

Finally a more sentient — or at least more tail-wagging friendly — creature was called into play: Ogden, whose dog-training workshops are well-known around the Island, scrambled her sidekick Myles from the back of her van. A golden retriever, Myles is being trained to sniff out turtles in the field to save them from the above-mentioned anthropogenic (that means human-induced) death by machines in the grasses. 

And now Ogden clicked on Myles’ professional halter to prepare him psychologically for the task at hand: She had placed Johnny Sue out in a field,  locked by a wire enclosure.

“Myles works by air-scenting,” explained Ogden. “A turtle’s odor is very individualistic.” How special indeed is the canine nose. We humans would have difficulty picking up sweet Johnny Sue’s smell if she fell on our face.

Myles set out to find the turtle. We stood around looking intentionally elsewhere from the turtle’s hiding place. I mimed one of those cartoony whistles, hands behind my back, as if nothing was going on. Myles swished one way and another, poking his nose into a clump of volunteer rosa rugosa, but inside of a minute he’d zeroed in on Johnny Sue. Myles’ find indication is a passive response (sit or down). Ogden swept in quickly to reward the dog for locating the concealed hide.

At last, as the sun was fading over the glorious summer foliage of Cedar Tree Neck, Ogden returned Johnny Sue to her posh enclosure, and the Eastern box turtle slipped into a hollow log. I called out “Goodbye,” but she seemed not to hear me. Or did she?

*This article has been updated with several corrections that were brought to our attention.