published Sunday, August 12th, 2012

My Life: Expectant turtles, nimble newts, gerbils

by Jan Galletta

My younger son recently completed a house-sitting, pet-feeding stint for a couple of 60-something friends who traveled out of town. The animals he tended included a pair of cats the homeowners inherited from their daughter when the young woman moved away several years ago.

It got me thinking about the way that parenting often entails also caring, and paying for, the pets that children may acquire, become disenchanted with and later leave behind altogether.

During lunch a few weeks back, my friend, S.H., a hiking enthusiast and perennial volunteer, told me about the turtles that once occupied a 55-gallon aquarium in her kitchen. She said the little reptiles originally belonged to her son and daughter who'd long since lost interest in them by the time the family's Polish exchange student spied the two tank dwellers apparently trying to mate.

My friend said she took the female turtle to a veterinarian who examined the patient, detected what he thought was the presence of eggs and instructed S.H. to create a new, separate environment for the presumably expectant mom.

"It had to have a heat lamp and some sand where the eggs could be laid," she said. "We set it all up, and then we went on vacation."

But when the appointed time for motherhood's advent came and went without any egg-laying, S.H. took the turtle back to its doctor, who conducted a costly ultrasound screening. It turned out the turtle wasn't gravid after all, but merely "had eaten gravel in the first tank," according to my friend.

She said her son also went through a newt-keeping stage, but they bored him so rapidly he often didn't notice when they broke out of their habitats. She said that, months later, she might find a desiccated one in a bookcase or shriveled up in her daughter's dollhouse, among other unlikely locales.

Gerbils were the rodents that required extra effort by the adults in S.H.'s home.

She said, "The first one, Emily, started digging burrows, which supposedly meant she was lonely. We bought a male and had a marriage ceremony.

"But he was an abuser; right away, he punched her (Emily), so we went back and got a 'mama's boy' instead, had another marriage ceremony and the two of them eventually had babies."

There weren't always such happy endings for the domestic rodents under S.H.'s roof, however. She said that, once, while preparing for another vacation, her daughter put a gerbil in a garbage can while she cleaned its cage and forgot to put it back before the family departed.

"It died an untimely death, but we never told my daughter; we just said it got away," said S.H.

She said that, on another occasion, her visiting sister chided her for a lack of expertise in caring for the children's forsaken gerbils and offered to demonstrate the proper pickup technique.

"She grabbed a gerbil by its tail and it (the tail) immediately fell off," according to my friend.

Still, S.H. admitted that she, too, had her own history of gerbil abandonment. She said that, long before meeting her future husband, she'd dated a medical student who gave her a gerbil after the laboratory where he worked grew crowded with the fast-multiplying creatures.

When, sometime later, her interest waned in both the boyfriend and the furry little beast, my friend let the latter go at the first welcome center she came to on her way to Florida, she recalled.

"About 10 years after that," she said, "I actually read a story in the newspaper about how that particular part of Florida, that exact area, had just become overrun with gerbils over time."

Email Jan Galletta at

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