A 74-year-old classical music critic, a female priest from Staten Island and a handsome young Pilates instructor are all card-carrying members of the world’s most dedicated society of turtle aficionados.
In early June, on a busy Manhattan street, I bumped into Flash Rosenberg, a woman who freelanced for the art magazine I worked at a million years ago. Flash invited me up to her loft and gave me a cup of coffee. She still makes her living as a cartoonist and photographer, and her place was as jam-packed as you would expect a cartoonist/photographer’s loft to be. It was a fun 25 minutes of catch-up, but I had an appointment nearby. As I checked my phone for the time, she raised a finger and asked, “Do you want to meet my boys?”
The boys were two turtles floating in a large tank near the bathroom. They were the size of small throw pillows, with big fat necks; they looked like balding middle-aged men with patterns on their backs. “Aren’t they pretty?” Flash asked. And they were, as long as I concentrated on their shells and not on their Don Rickles faces.
Flash told me they were diamondback terrapins, the name for turtles that live in brackish water. Apparently there are some endangered wild terrapins in New York City, out by Jamaica Bay. “But I saved mine from becoming soup thirty years ago, at an open food stall in Philadelphia’s Chinatown,” Flash told me. “The seller kept saying, ‘Longevity! Longevity!’ I think he meant if you eat turtle soup you will live a long life, because diamondbacks can live past 50.
“I was horrified,” Flash continued. “I bought one and then went back later to get some company. I really took to them, but truthfully I’ve always been a bit of turtle person.”
She pointed to one of the floating boys. “You want to hold one?”
I didn’t really, but I nodded and she pulled one out of the tank.
“Meet O.O.T., for Ole Original Turtle. You should not fear O.O.T., for he is calm, sage and wise.” As I held a turtle for the first time in many years, Flash admitted she used to walk her pets in Bryant Park, tying brightly-colored helium balloons to them so she could find them as they ambled in the grass. Passersby were enchanted, but it was a short-lived idea. “I think they’re happier at home under their reptile light bulbs. It is less stressful here than being made a spectacle of.
“The other one in there is DoubleDill, an edgier dude named by my niece when she was five. She was calling him ‘Little Turtle’ which in her young voice sounded more like ‘Little Dildo,’ which was not something I wanted to call him. So I tried shortening his name to ‘LittleDill,’ which still sounded like “Little Dildo” — so finally he became “DoubleDill” — no space between letters.
“No matter how cool you are, if you hold up your turtle you will look like an eighth grade geek,” Flash went on. “It’s like owning a plant with much more personality. Plants don’t respond. But turtles do.” (At this moment, the turtles really seemed to be looking at her.) “Now I don’t know if they like me, per se; maybe it is my composite vibration — the way I walk and talk. I used to do radio spots in Philadelphia and when they would hear my voice they would look towards the radio, swear to God. You may think I’m nuts. I should show you my card for the turtle club.”
At that, I was hooked. As a writer with a fondness for subcultures, interesting humans and anything NYC, I had to know more. Flash explained that the New York Turtle & Tortoise Society has been around for 40 years. “We have a show in Greenwich Village where turtles and tortoises compete, with blue ribbons and Best in Show. It’s a scene. You should go.”
* * *
Two weeks later I entered the gates of the Village Community School on West 10th Street and headed toward a yard, where numerous tortoises were crawling on the asphalt. One turtle was being pulled in a hot pink Barbie jeep.
I chatted with the longest continuous member of the turtle society, 74-year-old Michael Sherwin, a charming and knowledgeable man in a crumpled suit. If this were a Christopher Guest film, Eugene Levy would be playing him. Michael used to be the Julliard bookstore manager and now reviews classical music concerts and releases. One of the turtle club members whispered to me afterwards, “There is an unwritten rule that we don’t start the judging until Sherwin shows up with the turtles, in his suit. He’s in that suit no matter what the weather is.” Michael had brought four turtles this day, including Snappy, an enormous 40-something common snapping turtle, probably the oldest four-legged competitor in the show.
Dr. Patrick Baker looked more like an all-American football player than a testudinologist, the proper name for a turtle and tortoise scientist. But this baby-faced man was indeed the judge of the competition, visiting from his research post in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he is studying the Nubian flapshell, a large softshell turtle found only in north central Africa. Dr. Baker took a long time to examine each contestant. Hours later, when Baker awarded the coveted blue ribbons, Michael and Snappy were called to the makeshift podium. Snappy was too large to carry, so Michael brought a younger, smaller turtle for the official photo.
Seven blue ribbons had been handed out, which left one prize remaining: the Best in Show at the 41st Annual New York Turtle and Tortoise Show. Humans craned their necks, turtlelike, to see who was left. Gasps could be heard when Dr. Baker announced a first-time entrant the winner, a 65-pound tortoise named Harry Houdini.
One shocked competitor whispered to me that Harry’s owner, Reverend Terry Troia of Staten Island, had arrived an hour late to last year’s turtle show but left the schoolyard determined to try again. This year, victory was hers.
* * *
In August of 2011 Rev. Troia was walking down Sharpe Avenue in Staten Island when she saw a large tortoise walking towards her. At first, the 56-year-old Reformed Church in America minister and citywide homeless advocate thought the animal was a large mechanical toy. She picked it up and realized her mistake when the tortoise started flailing. Rev. Troia brought it to her mother’s backyard, from which it promptly escaped. It was found grazing on a neighbor’s lawn.
Rev. Troia discovered the tortoise had belonged to a young boy who left him at a neighbor’s house and for unknown reasons never came back for him. The neighbor said Harry kept escaping from her yard. She had eight kids to feed and couldn’t afford to feed the tortoise. Rev. Troia agreed to hold on to him for the time being, naming him Harry Houdini because of his escape artistry.
Rev. Troia’s next order of business was identifying Harry’s species at the Staten Island Zoo, so she could learn what to feed him. It turned out that Harry is a northern African spurred-thighed tortoise, also called a sulcata, and a native of the sub-Saharan desert, probably smuggled into the country to be sold as a pet or food. One on-the-ball zoologist told her the sulcata is the third largest species after the Galapagos and Aldabra giant tortoises, and somewhat alarmingly, that he could grow to 260 pounds and live for over 150 years. Troia was not worried about how she was going to take care of him yet; her paramount concern was his health because it was clear to this specialist that he was very sick and needed immediate attention at the vet.
Rev. Troia drove to an emergency appointment with Dr. Michael Doolen, an especially active member of the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians based at NorthStar VETS in Trenton, New Jersey. Lead poisoning was the diagnosis, which corresponded with the later news that Harry had eaten through the wall of the apartment where he had lived with his former child owner. The only remedy was expensive chelation therapy, and Rev. Troia learned her rescue would have a better chance if he lived with her, rather than at an overcrowded sanctuary. Harry received shots in his neck and the kind minister learned how to administer them.
While Harry was recovering on a diet of hay, dandelion and fruit, Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of Staten Island hard in October of 2012. Troia’s home was without electricity and Harry without his special reptile lighting needed for recovery. By this time word of Harry’s situation had spread to animal lovers of Staten Island, and a kind old lady in Arrochar, a neighborhood still blessed with electricity, drove over to get him until power went back on in New Brighton.
After several more months of pricey treatment, Harry was finally well. Rabbi Gerald Sussman, Troia’s boss at the interfaith homeless outreach organization Project Hospitality, offered his yard for the summers. Harry continues to live as an interfaith tortoise, wandering the rabbi’s yard through the High Holidays, then coming back to Rev. Troia after Sukkos to spend his winters in her bedroom.
To teach empathy, Rev. Troia often brings Harry, approximately fifteen years old, to kindergartens of Staten Island, explaining to enraptured young audiences that “Harry was homeless and an undocumented African immigrant.” She explains the struggle and dangers of living with no papers, as well as the concept of adoption. “I tell kids that he doesn’t look like me but he is family.”
Rev. Troia yearns to meet other New York City sulcata owners. Harry had never met any other tortoises he until arrived at the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society show. “He was a big hit, with everyone,” said Rev. Troia. “For a vegetarian he is a big ham.”
I was on the scene when Harry met Bozo, a young small female sulcata, and had to ask Troia what the hell that grunting noise emanating from her pet was. “Ha!” she answered. “That was his first girl for sure.”
The oldest turtles and tortoises in New York City are the two male Aldabra giant tortoises at the Bronx Zoo, which are believed to be over 100. Native to the Aldabra atoll in the Republic of Seychelles, they can live past 200. But even a house pet like a box turtle can live to be 100. Given that the possible sulcata lifespan is 150, Harry Houdini may still be crawling in Staten Island when every last person now reading this article is dead.
* * *
Pilates instructor Erico Villanueva whispers goodbye to his tortoise Cynthia every year around Halloween, before he puts her in the refrigerator to hibernate. Cynthia is a marginated tortoise; native to Greece and Sardinia, the name comes from notably bent marginal tiles, also called scutes, in the back of their carapace, the upper shell of a turtle. Fourteen years ago, when Cynthia came here from Los Angeles via UPS, she was the size of a quarter. Now she is twenty inches long.
A former gymnast and Joffrey-trained dancer, Erico still dances in Broadway productions from time to time. This lithe man with a winning smile grew up on a farm outside Buenos Aires in the 1970s, where moderately-sized Chaco tortoises were plentiful. Homesick in New York, Erico looked into getting a Chaco into the United States, but was thwarted by legal restrictions and cost. More doable was a similar-size marginated tortoise of the Mediterranean. He looked into breeders and found one in California.
Before her yearly big goodbye, Erico winds down feeding Cynthia and she grows more lethargic until she is ready for the mini-fridge. He places her in a brown paper bag that his clients sometimes mistake for his lunch. He removes the bag from the shelf mid-April, give or take a week. “I wait for the warmth of spring, but I miss her and once a week I open the fridge door for a minute or two to recirculate the air inside and check on her. That helps the time pass.”
Is this a normal thing to do?
“In the wild, marginated tortoises hibernate,” explained Erico. “It is part of the biological natural cycle. You can do it with a healthy animal only, never a sick one. Some people don’t do this and it is okay too.”
During the rest of the year Cynthia spends a lot of time with Erico in his Chelsea studio. He joined the society a few years ago when he fortuitously walked past the gates of the Village Community School yard on the day of the annual show, and peeking in, realized he was not alone in New York.
This year was the second time Cynthia won a coveted NYTTS blue ribbon. I asked what a winning tortoise eats.
“Grass. I also give her dandelions and fruit, which is like candy to her. I will spoil her with strawberries and blueberries from Whole Foods. My boyfriend will too.”
At the show, Erico brought a likable young man he had just met that week, who looked mildly astounded to be surrounded by dozens of turtles and tortoises so soon after a hot date.
“Now he’s my boyfriend, John!” Erico exclaimed. “Did John mention to you he’s studying to be an Episcopalian priest? One of John’s new duties will be the blessing of animals. And he is excited to have Cynthia go to his parish so he can bless her.”
* * *
Allen Salzberg found his first turtle at a Jewish day camp called Funland in Oakland, New Jersey. “Funland was run by three rabbis,” Allen added, before detaching himself by telling the rest of story as if he were a character in someone’s novel. “I was ten and playing baseball next to a stream, waiting for my turn at bat. I saw a painted turtle that dove off a floating log and without thinking I dove in after it. Let’s put it this way: Everything blacked out until I realized I was holding the turtle and I was the center of attention.”
He looked up again, back in 2015. “It was not the perfect turtle to own; I let that turtle go. I don’t want to imply that kids should own turtles caught in the wild.”
When Allen and Anita Salzberg started dating in 1986, Anita, then a copyeditor, knew nothing about turtles. Soon after they met, Anita suggested a romantic outing to the Bronx Zoo. Allen, a Bronx High School of Science graduate who had been collecting turtles on and off for years, agreed, with a caveat: “Only if we can visit the reptile house.” There, they spotted a big sign announcing that a mysterious New York Turtle and Tortoise Society was looking for new members.
Anita, who would go on to author the 2005 memoir “Confessions of a Turtle Wife,” rolled her eyes. “That was the end.”
After joining the society, “two minutes later his was the adoption chair,” Anita added.
“I thought ‘adoption, turtles — hey, that would be fun!’” Allen said. “A minute later everybody getting rid of a turtle was at our newly shared apartment. Every time I got home the doorman would be there with a box. Often they would leave the turtle and run. My philosophy was, just take the animal — ask questions but the animal comes first. I tried places I know will take care, like The Queens Zoo.”
Allen, a PR writer and occasional science journalist, also volunteered to take on public relations for the NYTTS. Pre-Internet in 1987, he sent a spiffy press release to the pet columnist of Better Homes & Gardens, his first score. Then, with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” mania in high gear, it was easy to place a small article in The New York Times, and sure enough there were huge throngs at the next turtle show, and briefly, a membership of 2,000. “Sadly, we are a shell of what were back in the late ’80s,” Allen admitted.
Allen enjoys aspects of the members he meets but thinks some of them anthropomorphize too much. What truly excites Allen, who edits a weekly online reptile newsletter HerpDigest, is recent microphone-based research in Brazil that led to a new discovery. “Apparently certain species and maybe all species talk, and send out signals to other turtles underwater and they respond,” he said. “I grew up thinking there was with no talking for turtles. If they are sentient beings on this level then that boggles my mind.”
Where were the Salzbergs’ own turtles?
“In the kitchen,” Allen said. “We’re down to three.”
Like any proper New Yorker I glanced at the Salzbergs’ overflowing bookshelves before I left. Caught out, I asked the 50-something bookworms for a few suggestions if I wanted to look at literary references on New York turtles.
“A judicious history of New York City would include Edith Wharton’s repeated mention of terrapin in ‘The Age of Innocence,’” Anita said.
“Don’t forget to mention Diamond Jim Brady, the great New York glutton who got his name from his love of green turtle soup,” Allen said.
I promised I wouldn’t.
“You know what you should really do?” Anita said suddenly. “You really should go to Lorri Cramer’s house.”
* * *
Who are you going to call when 652 illegal red-eared slider hatchlings are found in a warehouse in Chinatown? If you work for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation you are going to call a 68-year-old woman on the Upper West Side named Lorri Cramer.
“I have eight of them of them left; I’ve found homes for the rest,” said Lorri. “You need to understand that freezing to death is bad enough with mammals, but it is worse with turtles; because of the way their neurological system is set up they stay very aware the whole time. How could I say no?”
Lorri steered me to an extra bathroom where eight tiny turtles scurried around in a container inside her tub. “Instead of a size of a quarter they are the size of a silver dollar now.”
Lorri’s apartment also contains three cats and a rescue springer spaniel, Molly. One of the cats, Lily, fond feral along the shoreline after Hurricane Sandy, is in charge of everyone in the house, including the dog.
But surely turtles are Lorri’s true passion?
“Not especially. Let’s just say I have an unusual affinity for all animals — I live in a New York apartment, otherwise God knows what else I would be tending to. But turtles work for me in a cramped space; they are not wandering all over the house.
“There are not that many now, in my opinion, since I found homes for most of the hatchlings from that Chinatown sting. Fifty isn’t that many to me these days.
“Every one you see I have licensed as a New York State wildlife rehabilitator. It isn’t an ideal life in a Manhattan apartment, but it’s safer for them here. After rehabilitation, many of the ones you see here will be released, unless they can’t be released; some have injuries in which a predator will get them. Sometime the animals came into the country illegally and we can’t get them back to their natural environment; I’m not about to release an African sideneck in New Jersey.
“They come in at all times. I got a call to rescue one tortoise native to Florida marching in the middle of Queens Boulevard in February.”
Do her neighbors think she is a hoarder?
“Well, I don’t. I’m looking to give as many away as I can. I didn’t go looking for any of these turtles. They were brought to me.”
Lorri then introduced me to two South American tortoises that were found in a false-bottom suitcase and confiscated 20 years ago at customs in Florida. The airline sent 350 baby tortoises direct from Florida to Lorri and she gave as many as she could to the Turtleback Zoo in New Jersey. “They couldn’t go back to South America because we had no idea where they were from originally. Think about it: They all have areas they are specifically from. They might have exposed other turtles to infection. These two tortoises are two of the lucky ones. The majority from that suitcase were very dehydrated — an evil thing wholesalers do all the time — they dehydrate the turtles and tortoises so they weigh less and cost them less.”
Lorri explained that many of her turtles come from Central Park — “some with legs bitten off. Snapping turtles are in every pond in Manhattan, all the ones in Central Park are stuffed with them. Most of them are unfortunately, red-eared sliders, which people get as tiny pets in Chinatown. The sliders are fast as hell when they get older; they are remarkably hardy turtles and people start dumping them because they are too quick for them.”
I couldn’t not mention the outlandish rumor I heard from several members at the turtle show: that at night Chinese restaurateurs are swooping in and getting turtles out of Central Park’s Turtle Pond for soup. This was not entirely dismissed. “That comes from a guest lecturer we had once who insisted people were stealing turtles. I can’t say for sure. On occasion this might be happening…But I’m not convinced.
“I’m not worried about who’s coming out, as much as who’s going in,” she added. “What I’m worried about the most are the Buddhists.”
“I’m not anti-Buddhist; Buddhists are lovely people, but there’s many in New York City using an antiquated version of a beautiful ‘release life’ ceremony called fangsheng. Many Buddhists believe it’s good karma to release a captive animal. But in New York City, they’re actually giving these turtles even more miserable lives. Certain times of the year I get more than a dozen freshwater turtles found in saltwater, or turtles released in fountains. The Buddhists put them in the East River, in the Hudson River, everywhere there is water. The animals get really sick. If a freshwater turtle is in salt water too long its kidneys and liver suffer and it will die from it. Others starve to death.”
Every year Lorri wrote letters to different temples, begging leaders to spread the word not to release turtles and tortoises in this way. “No one responded. No one was going to talk to me in Chinatown because I’m not Chinese. But I did not give up hope, and kept this up for seven years. Finally, the Venerable Benkong from Grace Gratitude Buddhist Temple on East Broadway contacted me. He was worried about it too.”
Lorri took a drink of water. “Turns out Benkong’s an Italian from Jersey City — but he went as a teen to China to study, I think. He is not only a monk but before that he was one of the people who put together AIDS clinics in Africa. He married women a couple of times before he decided he was a monk and really gay. He is just an amazing monk.”
Ven. Benkong and Lorri Cramer teamed up and brainstormed ways to adjust the ceremony. Benkong distributed a plan to New York’s temples, in English and Chinese. The handout asked area Buddhists to stop and think. Instead of going to a store and spending money to buy sick animals and release them, he pleaded with those seeking good karma to join a group of likeminded compassionate people who will only release animals that are ready for the wilds of New York. Benkong will lead the blessing over animals that have been sick but healed and are going out to the environment. “There’s a beautiful blessing and chanting,” Lorri said. “The next one is this fall if anyone wants to go.”
As a 68-year-old who is a breast cancer survivor of two years, does Lorri worry about her charges when she is gone? She paused. “Well, the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society has a program where you can write into your will that if you die your animals can be given to them, and they will find a great home. I only keep about twelve of the animals as true pets, and only Lavinia can wander the house.
“Lavinia was my first rescue; he had four broken legs when he came into my life. I didn’t know I had a male turtle for six more years. You really can’t tell when they are young. But when they get older, depending on the species, you might see something that helps you identify the sex — the shape of the tail is always a good way. With land turtles, their bottom shell, called plastrons, are concave — wait, I’ll show you what I mean.” She grabbed a male turtle named Billy Idol who only had three legs. “We found him 25 years ago around when the real Billy Idol had a motorcycle accident and nearly lost his leg.” She flipped reptile Billy Idol over to show me his plastron. “With a boy, they are more faded inside.”
Can’t you tell by…a penis?
“Can you ever! The first time I found out that Lavinia was a boy was the first time he displayed and I thought his whole insides were falling out. Who knew it comes out through the tail? Always a shock because it’s quite long.” (A later view on YouTube confirmed this big-time.)
Lorri hesitated for the first time when asked if her husband minds the menagerie. “Well, Mitchell doesn’t allow turtles in the bedroom. The dog and the cats can come in there but he wants one room in the house to be turtle- and tortoise-free. And he won’t do any cleaning — but he does buy their food. He’ll stop and get fresh greens for the tortoise.”
But does he like them?
“He’s come to like them.”
Her kids, meanwhile, go back and forth on their commitment level. “Growing up, they both loved turtles until they were teenagers and then it was embarrassing to take their friends into a house with dozens of turtles. My daughter Abby still has a special connection with the turtles though, although she lives in a no-pets building now.”
She led me to a large turtle near her front door. “This is Splash, who was my daughter’s turtle, and he stayed in a tank at the foot of her bed. When Abby woke up he would start splashing to get her attention. When Abby went to college, Splash was alone in her bedroom and stopped eating and was lethargic. I realized he needed attention, and that he was used to a lot of stuff going on. So now Splash is the meeter-and-greeter. I put him right by the door so he can see everything that’s happening. He likes to say goodbye too.”
Sure enough, a large turtle swam to the edge of the tank for a look, and started splashing and bobbing his head. Lorri smiled widely. “Oh, he’s happy right now. He’s a people turtle!”
As I turned to leave behind a curious world only weeks ago I had no idea existed in the wilds of New York City, I glanced back at Splash, who was floating with legs out. He looked toward me, or at least I projected that he looked toward me. I wondered if he knew that I liked him. I kind of doubted it. His old-man eyelids closed, he paddled away, and I said goodbye to his tail.
* * *
Laurie Gwen Shapiro is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker as well as a novelist. She is currently working on her first non-fiction book, about a Lower East Side teen stowaway on Commander Byrd’s 1928 expedition to Antarctica. (Simon & Schuster, early 2017. Follow her @LaurieStories and on facebook at facebook.com/LaurieGwenShapiro)
Rose Marie Cromwell is a photographic and video artist currently living and working between New York and Panama. She is also a founder of Cambio Creativo, a Fulbright Scholar, and recent Light Work artist in residence.