Saturday, May 17, 2008


I suspect working with animals is rather like working with children in that one should really try to avoid favorites. However it is almost inevitable that certain characters are just more appealing than others. This would certainly be the case with me and Harrison. Harrison is a male Eastern Box Turtle Terrapene carolina carolina and he first came to my attention when I was a volunteer at the nature museum. He was kept in a very small tank and really was pretty inert. A number of years later I started working at the museum and Harrison was still in his little tank and still rather a non-entity. Eventually I was promoted to a position where I made the decisions about how and where the animals were housed and one of my first priorities was to get Harrison an 'upgrade.'
Harrison now resides in a much larger enclosure with his own 'bath', hide box and log tunnel and boy what a change in personality! When I talk about a turtle with character people tend to look at me as if I am somewhat crazy, that is until they meet Harrison. Harrison is an incorrigible flirt and loves visitors. If a new person comes in to the lab I will walk up to Harrisons cage and say 'hey you have got visitors' he will immediately rush up to the front of the cage and demand that it be opened by banging against it. He especially likes lady visitors and will gaze deeply into their eyes!
Now it is slightly disconcerting when he gazes into your eyes because his eyes are a very bright orange which none of these photos really do justice to! He also has a passion for the ladies of his own species too. We have four female box turtles at the museum and although none of them share Harrisons 'enthusiasm' they do get to take it in turns to do their tour of duty with Harrison! If ever there was a turtle porn star then Harrison is it! Any one who tries to tell you that animals do not mate for pleasure and only do it to reproduce have not seen Harrison in action! He really is a shocking exhibitionist and I swear all he needs is a cigarette in the corner of his mouth to complete the entire decadent picture!! Because he is so keen, none of the females have to stay with him for more than one night at a time and invariably when we come into the lab in the morning Harrison will be sleeping blissfully and whichever of the females is in there will be in the furthest corner away from him, firmly locked up inside their shell! (The reason box turtles are so named is because they have a hinged plastron which means they are able to close their shell up so tightly that you can't even get a knife blade between the two halves.) The female turtle is rescued and returned to the 'girls cage' and Harrison goes back to a celebate life for another week or two. If you leave him too long without a visit from the ladies he gets very fractious and bashes at the front of his cage and tries to climb out and find one for himself!
When we are cleaning the turtles cages we let them have a free run of the lab and in order to ensure that no one trips over them we have a custom sign. Although as far as Harrison is concerned it is not entirely accurate as he is surprisingly fast for a turtle! (Of course Harrisons time for roaming around the lab is not the same time as when the females are out!) They are fed as varied a diet as we can get for them, with a full range of fresh fruit and vegetables that changes depending on what is in season. At present we are getting blackberries which are a particular favorite and they all end up with purple smeared all over their faces from the juice. They also get mealworms, waxworms, earthworms and crickets. Harrison, being a true red blooded male finds all the fruit and veg vastly overrated and much prefers to eat just the meat!!
Harrison is also an outrageous media whore. One of his favorite members of the museum staff is a very attractive young blond lady who works in the marketing department. She is responsible for booking any media events for us. A while back we were promoting a reptiles exhibit that we had at the museum and we were going down to one of the local TV studios with some live animals to do a piece. The young lady came in to the lab to tell Harrison that he was going to be on TV (Yes Harrison has that kind of standing within the museum!) Needless to say he seemed to respond in a way that would suggest that he thought this was a good thing. Anyway as it turned out the piece was changed slightly and Harrison was no longer required. I went off to the studio with the requested animals, did the piece and came back to the museum. Harrison was in the back corner of his cage (which he never does) with his back towards us (which he also never does) and his head pulled into his shell (totally unheard of for him!) And before you say anything - I KNOW - I am not supposed to anthropomorphosise! But, Harrison was sulking. I called the girl from marketing and she came over to try and apologize and very slowly Harrison forgave her and after talking to him for about fifteen minutes he eventually turned round, came to the front of the cage and had his customary head scratch! Something that would usually takes about fifteen seconds!
A couple of weeks later we had another media request which was going to take place on site and I suggested that it might be a good thing to include Harrison this time. It was an early morning call but Harrison was more than ready for his close up! When we arrived one of the camera men had put his camera down on the ground and the first thing Harrison did when I put him on the floor was rush straight up to it and start posing in front of it! He was kept busy with that for quite some time but none of us really had the heart to tell him that it wasn't switched on! After the filming was finished and we returned to the lab, Harrison climbed up on to the top of his log tunnel (his favorite vantage point) and gazed out on the world contentedly for the rest of the day! Only I could end up with a star struck turtle!!
All that being said, in spite of, or maybe because of being an outrageous flirt, having a gargantuan sexual appetite, refusing to eat his greens and being media hungry he is a truly delightful character who invariably brings a smile to my face and makes each day just that little bit better.
Thanks Harrison.

Photo Credits - CJT

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