Ah yes, another "[Animal Name] Day." "World Turtle Day", however, has a little more lasting power than many others - 2016 marks its 16th year. Established by the American Tortoise Rescue in 1990, World Turtle Day celebrates shelled reptiles - animals that, for many of us, were first pets, or backyard acquantances. For many zookeepers and aquarists, turtles and tortoises are part of our workplace families, and they are endearingly fascinating creatures.
Even visitors who fear other reptiles - snakes and lizards and crocodilians (to the best of my knowledge, no one is afraid of tuataras) find turtles and tortoises to be charming, even lovable. We celebrate them in culture, from Franklin the Turtle to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Perhaps their slow, steady movements make them seem less threatening than many other animals. With the notable (and dubious) exception of the Greek playwright Aeschylus, I know of no one who has ever been killed by a chelonian
If tortoises and turtles do no harm to people, we certainly do a lot to them. They have been persecuted for centuries for food, oil, or ornamentation. Many islands across the equatorial seas once boasted of giant tortoises - today, very few remain in greatly reduced numbers. Traditional Chinese Medicine has made the individuals of some species more valuable than gold. Sea turtles have their nesting beaches disturbed or paved over to make tourist resorts. Even the more common species suffer as thousands of them are sold to inexperienced pet owners, only to languish in dirty fishbowls before dying stoically.
As a zookeeper, turtles and tortoises have been part of my life for years. I've worked with hulking Aldabra tortoises, who could move with surprising speed as they saw you come with their favorite treats, and mata-matas which would lie motionless for hours before exploding with motion and sound as they sucked up an offered fish. I've helped head-start baby sea turtles, hatch out endangered tortoises, and rehabilitate rescued pets, including on poor turtle with a shell so soft from light deficiency that you could actually bend it. Before the zoos, there were the turtles found in my backyard or in the nearby woods. Among their numbers were a select few that spent some time living in my terrariums before being released outside.
So for at least one day of the year, let's slow down and remember the turtles and tortoises.