Excuse Me?  I'm An Animal Lover

Rachel Lutwick-Deaner

© Copyright 2023 by Rachel Lutwick-Deaner

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Loving animals does not mean loving actual animals or the animal world. It can mean loving the idea of animals. It feels sometimes that we are in a post flesh-and-bones era, that the internet has ushered this in. However books allow a certain degree of this kind of a life. We can love to read about things that we would never love in real life, things that we would never try or touch.

My youngest child, Davita, has long declared herself an animal lover. The very first thing in which she expressed a distinct interest were birds. She could hear them, spot them in the sky, identify their movement above all the other creatures of the planet. So clear was this interest, that for her first birthday, I gifted her a bird shaped basket filled with wooden eggs. For her second birthday, I gifted her a stuffed owl, soft and downy. Approaching her third birthday, she persisted with a chant, “All I want for my birthday is a little plastic duck, and a little plastic goose.” She got them, of course.

Davita’s first decade, and even beyond, were occupied by the toys that I call “plastic animals.” These rigid creatures ranged from amorphous dime-store knick knacks to hand crafted wooden beasts to the Schleich animals, those shining mammals and amphibians, backlit on the shelves of our independent bookstore. She had several “toobs” of creatures, dogs, cats, rainforest fauna, overpriced but irresistible. This menagerie lived in several undignified cardboard suitcases, which appeared, upon opening, as if the apocalypse had arrived at the Bronx zoo. Utter devastation.

The plastic animals were the players in every imaginable game or scenario. They inhabited wooden castles, cities made from Magnatiles, and lego cabins. They were lined up on the steps in a parade and laid out in cultish circles, observing the bulky lion or elephant, undoubtedly the charismatic leader.

Any book about animals was a book for Davita. We spent hours pouring over encyclopedic collections of animal facts. Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals, every incarnation of the DH compendium, all the Eric Carles. Most adored was a book that arrived in her small sweaty grasp via an older sibling’s Scholastic book fair. Teeny, Tiny Animals was a compendium of facts about our world’s smallest creatures. Many live in Cuba, if you’re wondering. Davita’s devotion to Teeny, Tiny Animals was so fevered that one night she tore it to shreds. We woke in the morning to find each page torn and crumpled, stuffed behind the slats of her toddler bed. For a day, she was nonplussed, a bit irritated at our shock and dismay that she had treated a beloved text so viciously. Within a week, she was asking for the book again. It seemed she was regretful at ending their relationship so thoughtlessly. We complied.

Each species seemed to be the object of distinct admiration for a season, but Davita devoted many months to her love of turtles. Not just turtles but tortugas, the Spanish taken directly from her toddler-crush, Dora’s cousin, Diego. Diego had many adventures, but none were so consumed as “Go, Diego, Go-Tuga the Sea Turtle” and “Diego and the Baby Sea Turtles.” There was no more delicious time spent than stacking one plastic turtle on top of the other, unless it was lavishing attention on the plastic neo-turtles, emerging from their glassy shells.

I live less than a mile from Reeds lake, and I have never grown tired of seeking the aquatic gifts it has to offer. On my daily walks, I amble down to the water’s edge to investigate the shimmer of quick fish, the swans’ nests, as baronial and over constructed as the loftiest homes on Cambridge St. And the turtles. It’s nearly impossible to walk by the lake on a day that offers any warmth and not see a turtle, or five, basking in the sun on a log. I fear they can sense my delight, that my wonderment sends vibrations into the air that are too much for the little beasts to bear, and they sometimes plop! one after another into the water.

Often, the creatures and their resting place are anointed with the Shrek-green algae that covers much of the lake’s edges. Still the keen little eyes and pointy visages call for my attention and admiration. From a distance.

The larger turtles, the snapping variety, tails like alligators, can be found stolid and resistant along the lake paths. Whether these beasts are out of the water to lay eggs or snap the ankles of eager exercisers is unclear, but best give them a wide berth. They are watching you, and they will take your fingers should you get too close. The big turtles are suggestive of sustenance, as I recall the habit of sailors to bring along some giant tortoises to eat when the hardtack ran short. The smaller turtles, crushed like so many frogs and squirrels in the dark of evening, remind me less of the circle of life, and more of the rotten lake grasses at the water’s edge–watery chaff.

I’m aware that there’s a distinction between large and small turtles, that they have names and varieties, but outside the snapping turtle I don’t know them. The internet tells me that Michigan is the home of Blanding’s turtle, Common map turtle, Common Musk turtle, Common snapping turtle, Eastern box turtle, Painted turtle, Red-eared slider, Spiny soft-shell turtle, Spotted turtle, and Wood turtle.
I also notice that the more a person types the word turtle, the more quickly it looks like it’s not a real word, but a misspelling or transliteration from an ancient creation story.

The Parks and Recreation building sits lakeside, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I came across a rotund and angry turtle in the middle of the parking lot. I circled it, keeping my distance from its brittle beak, surely waiting to snap at my beseeching fingers, only wanting to remove it from the tires of local townspeople, coming and going from their exercise classes.

So many times, I’ve seen the crushed shells, the meaty insides exposed, slick and lurid after a car has unknowingly (knowingly perhaps?) taken the right of way on the road. I do not know if I was more concerned with what the carnage would look like than I was about saving that turtle’s life when I decided to take action.

Did I shore up my courage and grab the dinner plate sized beast in my bare hands? No.

Did I throw my sweatshirt over his carapace and run like mad for the water’s edge, where I would toss him to safety? No.

Did I march myself over to the public safety office to report the turtle’s whereabouts? Yes. I essentially “called the cops” on a turtle, interloper that he was in our city parks and recreation parking lot. The nerve.

The public safety officer seemed irritated. She raised an eyebrow, frowning slightly as I recounted the predicament. She made a few notes and told me, voice boredom-inflected, that she’d find someone to take a look. Content, after fulfilling my civic duty, I returned to the parking lot, making my way to my exercise class.

I was surprised to find my friend Annie there, in the lot, with an armful of turtle. I recoiled as she crisply made her way to the water’s edge, nestling the turtle in the reeds, and wiping her hands on her Zumba pants. She chastised me as I confessed about my recent reportage to Public Safety. Annie is a person who loves animals in real life as well as in books. We are dissimilar in that way.

It seems I may be responsible for passing down this “loving animals but not really loving animals” stance to my child. There is a limit to how much my girl really loves animals. Real animals. Davita once expressed disgust when she discovered that our dog’s feces emerged at body-temperature–warm. When she shared this disgust with her father, he reminded her that her own body produced poop that was also warm, and she denied it. This resistance seems to run in my family. My little sister, circa 1987, doggedly denied that “Everybody had a Brain,” as Big Bird sang joyfully on our Sesame Street audio cassette. I don’t! she argued. I don’t have a brain! Some things are too terrible and amazing to consider.

Because my idea of an adventure is a trip to the library, I have always felt less-than when it comes to enriching my children’s experiences outside of our home. I have to remind myself that I did take them to Night of the Butterflies at Meijer Garden that one time. This event is hosted to bring in foot traffic to the annual infestation of winged insects to the Meijer Garden tropical greenhouse. Night of the Butterflies brought the masses to the greenhouse, and after spending 40 minutes cheek-to-cheek with all of Grand Rapids, my family broke free into the fresh air of the sculpture garden.

We were walking down the path towards the Giant Horse, when my eyes alighted upon what I assumed was a “plastic animal.” This dollhouse sized tortuga looked exactly like my sweet girl’s army of shelled beloveds, and I immediately scooped it up, thinking we were about to add another to our collection.

Except when I took a closer look, I saw the tortuga’s mouth open. This tiny, quarter sized creature was alive, a living turtle.

Guys! I shrieked, to my children who had run ahead. I found something! I found a real turtle.

My older children, Tali and Zev, ran down the paved path directly towards me. Ages eight and five, they were like mitochondria, packs of energy buzzing around the cell. Where, where? Mom, let me see!

Davita, aged two, hung back, her grey-green eyes unloving.

Guys, it’s a real living turtle, a baby turtle. Look at it!

Tali and Zev were a chaos of joy. They excitedly named it. Voldemort! They immediately began making plans to bring it home. It would live in a tupperware container in the garage! They would feed it Costco salmon! Could they bring it for show and tell?

My husband and I exchanged excited glances for a second before our better natures kicked in and we said no, Voldy would not be coming home with us, but we could enjoy him here. Taking a creature from a sculpture garden seemed outside the boundaries of responsible parenting.

Davita! Her older siblings called. Davita! You’ve got to see this.

Davita remained at the periphery, a safe distance from our fray. She looked skeptical, disapproving. Her hands, little starfish, were clasped, closed.

My husband Robert approached her gently, Davita, would you like to see the turtle?

She didn’t say yes, and she didn’t say no, so I approached her, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, thrusting the miniature creature towards her. She lowered her eyes as she appraised the turtle. “‘Scusting! Bad turtle!” she proclaimed.

Did you just hear that? I asked the world. Robert? She just called the turtle bad, disgusting! I was talking about Davita as if she weren’t even there. I was in shock.

The turtle’s good. It’s a baby turtle, Davita. It’s good! Who was I convincing?

Tali and Zev had caught onto the conversation, and they joined in, a bit too raucously. Davita stepped back. She was done. She had no interest, and we couldn’t convince her otherwise. She loved her toy turtles, but she took no joy in nature’s little marvel. Zev took the turtle and with great enthusiasm allowed him to tumble into a rivulet along the footpath. Goodbye, Voldy. Bad turtle.

How could my child who knew so much about animals, who spent so much of her waking hours imagining their lives, lavishing attention upon their facsimiles, find the baby turtle ‘scusting?

Those of us who live in books often live so far away from the palpable realities of the natural world. I sit in my public library, looking out on Reeds Lake, seeing the wind blow in the nameless trees, well aware that there’s a whole world out there, but I can’t feel it or smell it or taste it. I realize that I have grown my animal loving daughter in the same bookish world, wherein the nuances of nature are described lovingly and with wonderment, but there’s no clear pathway to experience reality. Not even the ever present aquarium in the library children’s room, housing painted turtles and axolotls, is the same as stepping ankle-deep in the muck of our lake to get close to an actual, living animal.

We circle around the natural, the inevitable. We idealize our beloved, our constant companions, and yet we are reviled by their sweat, their stink, their visceral nature. In her essay “Sister Turtle,” Mary Oliver promises us, “All things are meltable, and replaceable. Not at this moment, but soon enough, we are lambs and we are leaves, and we are stars, and the shining, mysterious pond water itself.” I would say that we are all stories on a page. We are books and pages and words and symbols that if you stare at long enough can mean nothing and everything. We can be reshelved. We can be loved so intensely, that we are shredded and hidden behind the bed slats. We can pour all of our love into something, and then declare ‘Scusting, bad turtle.

I am a college professor, mother, and ruminator, living in the Midwest. I earned a BA in English from Colgate University, and an MA in English Literature from North Carolina State University. I will graduate with a MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Queens University of Charlotte in May 2023.
 I have published book reviews for the Southern Review of Books, and I have had one personal essay published in Streetlight Magazine. I have never earned any money for my published work.
When I am not reading or grading student papers, I am making a mess in the kitchen. You can find me on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/@professor.ld/

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