A year ago today, Oogway came into my life.
One moment I was huffing and puffing, swinging a kettlebell in the heat of mid-day. The next, I did a double-take. There was a tiny speck of a baby turtle in front of me, baking on the tar-black asphalt.
For the next few days, everything else took a backseat to figuring out what exactly he was, and of course, to ensuring that he survived.
With the help of friends and the Internet, I soon identified Oogway as a Chinese pond turtle (Mauremys reevesii), a species probably not native to Japan, but ubiquitous in parts of the country now, most likely due to careless and/ or uncaring pet owners who have released them into local waterways. The irony is that this species is now endangered in its homeland, due in part to over-collection for the pet trade.
Oogway was tiny when we met. I mean truly tiny. His shell was 2.8cm (1.1in). His body proportions screamed, “teensy-weensy baby!” Take a look for yourself:
Though I had no experience with juvenile turtles, it was obvious that Oogway was newborn, just days old, if that. He was weak, disoriented, probably shell-shocked as well.
I am delighted to share that over the intervening months, Oogway has prospered. He has grown to a length of 6.2cm (2.4in) long at the shell, but more than that, he has filled out. Where he was flat as a pancake a year ago, today he is nice and round, a happy, healthy dome of a chelonian.
For comparison, here he is now, sitting on the same hand:
Can you see where each segment of his shell has grown outward, leaving the original, slightly darker segment clearly visible? That shows exactly how much he’s grown. Pretty cool, huh?
Each morning commences with a greeting. I peer into Oogway’s home and say hello.
Remarkably, he seems to respond. He pokes his head out, looks in my direction. He often blinks once or twice, opens and closes his mouth as if smacking his lips (if he had them), then sticks his head out of the water and turns as if to get a better look. I get the impression he sees better out of water than in, but perhaps that’s just me being silly.
Speaking of silly, get this.
Over time, Oogway’s appetite has increased, as one would expect for any growing animal. Where he used to eat say 10-15 pellets, there are days now when he would eat more than 60 if permitted.
A few months ago though, I noticed something. He started taking fewer pellets from me.
He would eat to a certain point, say 20-25 pellets, then run around in circles, climb up his ledge, stand against the side of his terrarium and wave his flippers willy-nilly. Total turtle tantrum.
Over time, Oogway has trained me to understand that this means, “I’m done eating. I want to play now. Pick me up!!!”
The moment I lower my hand into his terrarium, up Oogway walks, sitting on my outstretched hand until I lift him up and out to commence the day’s activities.
But wait. That’s not the silly part.
Each day, I write down how many pellets Oogway eats. It started as a matter of serious concern when he wasn’t eating much, if anything, back in the early days. Now it’s just a fun thing to do—look back on the calendar to see how he’s progressed.
When I went away to photograph for a few days in February, Oogway had a babysitter, who—at my insistence—also wrote down the number of pellets Oogway ate each day.
He ate more. Considerably more.
Striking this off as coincidence, I pushed it to the back of my mind, happy that Oogway had a healthy appetite.
But then it happened again. And again. And again just recently.
Somewhere along the way, I started to wonder if Oogway could distinguish among people. Like, did he know when it was me vs. the other humans in his life? I kept this thought to myself for some time. When I eventually voiced it to another person, I felt ridiculous, but the pattern seemed to be there, and it seemed to repeat in predictable manner.
So I did what any inquisitive person would do. I experimented.
Different people, different days. The result was a different pellet-count each time, remarkably consistent depending on the person. The person most likely to play (i.e., me) = fewest pellets. The person who never plays = greatest number of pellets consumed. The person who sometimes plays = intermediate number of pellets.
Every. Single. Time.
The good thing about writing everything down is that I have a record of everything Oogway has eaten. The pattern is so clear now that you can just look at the calendar and know who fed him on a given day.
I don’t know enough about turtles to know if it’s even possible for Oogway to discern the difference between me (easily amused, most likely to spend hours playing) and normal humans. It kinda seems like it though.
There were a few touch-and-go moments along the way, like when he decided not to eat for a couple of months, but as I write this, he is clambering around his playpen, a fenced off area on the floor beside me, where he spends time each morning when I’m working.
That reminds me. The moment I built a playpen as an enclosed area for him, Oogway slipped through the fencing without a second thought, thus proving that a university education isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. (In my defence, who could've guessed that pond turtles have mastered the practical application of the Pythagorean Theorem?)
I have taped stuff to the lower areas of the fence for the time being, until he gets too wide to sneak through. Just tested a couple of days ago. He has to push-and-squirm now, but he can still just manage to pop through.
Today, as I reminiscence and contemplate the relationship we’ve developed, I marvel at the things Oogway has taught me.
The value of life, for one thing. Not that this point has escaped me in the past, but having a lost, helpless turtle plopped into my life underscores this fact for me every day. Each time I look at him, I think about what would have become of this tiny turtle had we not crossed paths. I think of what I would have missed out on had we not become friends.
Fate worked in his favour (and mine for that matter) on 24 My 2018, but circumstances could have easily been different. Seeing him scamper across the floor makes me happy and reminds me to scamper as well, to make the most of every moment.
I have learned that turtles are not slow and lethargic, at least not this one. From the first few weeks of our friendship, it became obvious that Oogway loves to run. Yes, run. Not walk, not amble, not saunter. Run.
I take him for “walks” outside, which are better described as, “Tony watching Oogway sprint and talking to him while passersby endeavour to avoid direct eye contact with the eccentric man who appears to be mumbling to himself.”
He also climbs. He in fact loves to climb. I watched Oogway fail his first attempt to summit a rock. He kept trying until he succeeded. Then he picked a bigger rock, and one even bigger, until eventually, he became strong and agile enough to scale walls. See for yourself:
Thus has Oogway given me a mantra: “Never give up.” This I repeat as I challenge myself with new things, mental and physical, fortified by the example of my little turtle friend’s unwavering determination.
We have shared many special moments, like playing spot-the-sneaky-turtle-pretending-to-be-a-velociraptor in a nearby wooded area for example:
…and taking in the beauty of Sakura cherry blossoms in the spring, for which he demonstrated a level of interest (indifference?) appropriate to one of his kind:
Perhaps the most endearing aspect of our friendship is Oogway’s penchant for sleeping in my pocket.
One day last winter, he found his way into the pocket of my hoodie—you know, the type of front pocket with holes on two sides so you can stick both hands in—and fell asleep.
For the longest time, I wore the same hoodie, just for him. Each morning, I lounged in a big beanbag with a book. Oogway used me as a jungle gym, taking naps in my pocket as needed. Oogway got exercise and rest; I read a lot of books. Total win-win.
Eventually I was made to wash the hoodie. My use of passive voice is intentional. Neither of us boys felt the need to disrupt such the perfect arrangement.
It is warm now, so I don’t wear the hoodie. Fortunately, Oogway has decided that any pocket I have handy will do in a pinch, though it is clear he’d prefer that I just wear the hoodie year-round.
For obvious reasons, I cannot photograph Oogway while he is inside my pocket, but for illustrative purposes, I created a reasonable simulation of a Tony-pocket by using a neoprene pouch. Oogway kindly cooperated by falling asleep so you too can see how adorable he is. The white veil over his eye is his nictitating membrane.
It’s been a journey, our first year together.
With luck, Master Oogway (his full name) and I will share many more experiences and learn much together.
I leave you with this thought—The unexpected little things in life are often the most precious.
Previous Posts about Oogway (in reverse chronological order)