By Ellyn Gaydos
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Sara is standing outside her Williamsburg apartment building holding up her 20-year-old “little boy,” Abe. A Hasidic man does a double take driving by as does the cop cruising behind him. Bikers circle back around the block and schoolgirls giggle and point at the big yellow-footed tortoise paddling his legs through the air. Sara smiles, amused, at their reactions to her family member. She keeps around 60 more turtles as roommates in her compact quarters upstairs along with a chicken named Penny, two mourning doves, three goldfish and three cats, all of whom seem to coexist with a rather unusual degree of peace between species.
Sara’s living room has the standard fixtures like a couch and a bookshelf, but also includes a large pool garlanded in plastic flowers and lights for her turtles’ recreation. Two balance on the enormous shell of a snapping turtle, soaking up the heat lamp’s rays. Others paddle and bob their thumb-like heads above the water. “I just pay rent and they live here,” Sara says of her turtles, who get free reign of the house and, yes, they’re all potty trained.
Sara, who has lived in Williamsburg long before gentrification transformed the neighborhood, remembers fondly when “this used to be the boondocks,” and there was more green space to walk her turtles. Before she was known as “the turtle lady,” she got her first turtle while living in public housing in Bushwick, one of many pets her family kept growing up. Once Sara’ reputation grew as someone who kept the animals, she started getting phone calls from people asking her advice, and she began inheriting turtles. A bus driver Sara was friendly with gave her Abe, a tortoise he bought as a petite present for his wife that came to circumscribe a dinner plate and outgrow their apartment. In Sara’s own apartment, the sounds of shells bumping against furniture mingle with the radio. A leathery tail sticks out from underneath the bookshelf while Frankie, another tortoise, has sequestered himself next to the warm radiator and Alvin crawls from the pool into the shade beneath the couch.
Sara has been a member of the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society (NYTTPS) since 1989 and took best in show at their annual New York City competition in 1994. The trophy remains on display in her apartment. According to their website, the NYTTPS bases the annual awards “not only on the quality of the animal but also upon ownership responsibility (length of ownership, general health and physical condition and apparent quality of husbandry).” She got her first turtle as an adult on her daily commute past a fish market. Sara noticed a gray turtle in the window was deliberately swimming alongside her and eventually Sara went into the store and bought the $7 turtle, which the proprietor offered to “dress for her.” This was the first turtle she truly bonded with and even managed to save a second time (with the help of a vet) after its shell was severely cracked when trying to follow Sara down a flight of stairs.
Sara has lectured to children and adults about proper turtle care and learned much through experience with her animals, working part-time at pet stores, getting advice from veterinarians, and doing research at the library. “I didn’t just wanna have a pet turtle, I wanted to get deeper into it, learn how to care for a turtle when it got sick … I have a lot of little knowledge under my cap,” she says. It’s important for Sara to have this expertise because, “when you rescue turtles you don’t know what condition you’re getting them in.” With pets, observation is key. Always check for an unusually off smell from a pet turtle, make sure their coloring is normal and they are eating regularly, Sara advises. Owners often don’t know what sex or breed of turtle they have for a pet, which affects how they should be cared for. “People have brought turtles to me when they look like they’re practically knocking at death’s door,” Sara says, advising against waiting to get help when a turtle is sick.
A red slider she keeps has a shell grown in an abnormal upward curl around its perimeter. With his arms and legs fully exposed, in the wild “he’d be dead in a second,” she says. Sara spends most of her time caring for others, in addition to her menagerie at home she works as a home health aide, a job she’s held for years since retiring from the NYPD.
Sara describes turtles as “easy to spoil.” Many are omnivorous, though she doesn’t have the heart to feed them live earthworms. Her turtles eat bloodworms and enjoy all kinds of fruit. One loves strawberries, while a special treat for Abe is bowtie pasta with mayonnaise. Sara’s most “spoiled” turtles love to be hand-fed and even crawl into her lap. Turtles experience grief, too, and will refuse food when upset or missing an owner, something Sara has seen firsthand with turtles inherited after long time owners passed away. It is important to remember when considering a turtle for a pet, some species can live up to 80 years, making them lifelong companions.
“Turtles can love you back. They have no facial expression, but you can tell when a turtle is comfortable. When you have a turtle you can pick up and hold, that turtle is for you,” Sara says.