When I was about eight, my dad came home from playing tennis one day with a baby turtle in his hand (the photo above depicts neither my turtle, nor my dad’s hand). My pops had found the turtle scrabbling around on the path, a few hundred feet from the river near his tennis courts. I named the little guy Jiffy, after the slow-talking turtle on Sesame Street, and Dribble, after the pet turtle in a Judy Blume novel, and Turtle, because he was a turtle.
He was a Midland Painted Turtle, to be precise. His belly (or “ventral carapace”, as I would have proudly told you in grade four) was salmon-pink with a grey splotch in the centre, he had pretty yellow stripes on his face, and pink stripes on his legs and tail, and red patterns around the top and underside edges of his dorsal carapace, or what you regular people might call his shell. His bright yellow eyes shone above a cute little pointy nose and a frowny little mouth. He was about the size of a devilled egg, extremely fast moving, and as cute as a thousand buttons.
Midland painted turtles eat bugs. Jiffy turned up his tiny turtle nostrils at crunchy bugs like ants or rollybugs. He would tolerate bits of earthworm, and he also liked bits of smoked salmon (to my mother’s chagrin), but he went totally apeshit for juicy bugs like flies and spiders. Flies are hard to catch, but my family’s yard was surrounded by a 5-foot high cedar hedge, which was home to millions of spiders, so I became an expert spider hunter.
There were lots of spiderwebs in the hedge, but I was perplexed to see that most of them sat empty all day. I didn’t understand why these perfect webs were seemingly unattended, and experimented by catching small bugs like ants or gnats and putting them on the webs, where they flailed and wriggled. As their movements twanged the strands of the web, a spider would suddenly rush from a nearby branch: turns out some orb weavers hide in “blinds” beside their nest, like tiny deerhunters, playing poker and drinking jack daniel’s and waiting for their prey to just wander by.
So as soon as the web-strands started to move, the spider would emerge, sprint leggily to the web’s centre and use its front legs to palpate the web. It would feel around for the segment that contained the intruder, then rush to the unfortunate bug, paralyze it with a bite, and spin the hapless insect around while jetting silk all over it, until it became a small white cocoon from which Spidey could suck bug-juice at its leisure. Once I had watched this marvel of nature with my eyes poping out of my face a few times, I figured out a plan.
First I got a Slurpee fountain straw (a regular drinking straw cut open into a spoon at one end). I patted the spoon end all over another spiderweb so the spoon part was covered with a fine net of web, almost like a little tennis racquet. Then I tickled an unattended web with a single blade of grass, simulating the thrashing of a small bug. When the hopeful spider came into view, wondering who it would be having for dinner, I’d quickly tap its back with my spider-catcher. Spiders have teflon feet (not really) and fancy footwork, so they can run around on the non-sticky parts of their own spiderwebs, looking smug and graceful and never getting stuck. But their backs are just like any other bug’s back, and as such, are not immune to spiderweb glue. So when I tapped it on the back, the spider would stick to the net of webbing on my little plastic spider-catcher, flailing around upside-down, and I would yell YESSSS and hurry it across the yard to tap the straw on the edge of Jiffy’s tank, thus dropping the confused arachnid into two inches of water.
Jiffy would then do this awesome thing, which is hard to describe, but I remember it perfectly and will enthusiastically pantomime it for you some time. He would be busy doing turtle business, like sunning on a rock, or maybe scratching his tiny claws against the corner of the tank. The he’d see me coming and perk up. When the spider hit the water, he would go into stealth mode, pulling his head down under water and approaching the bug with his golden eyes locked on it, and circling around so he was behind it. He would retract his tiny head into his little turtleneck, then suddenly, eyes bulging, snap his head up and out, grabbing a big bite of the spider’s ass. The spider would be squeezed between Jiffy’s sharp little turtle lips, and a few threads of cloudy spider-blood would curl through the water.
Then Jiffy, with a mouth full of half a spider’s ass and the rest of the spider sticking out of his mouth like a large ginger moustache, would retract his head into his turtleneck again and use his little paddle-paws one at a time to swipe at the part of the spider sticking out of his mouth. He’d manage to hook his tiny pointy claws into the rest of the spider, and with one quick movement he’d scrape it right off his face, essentially cutting it in half, so he could swallow the part already in his mouth with a quick glugging jerk of his pea-sized head (aquatic turtles’ heads must be submerged in order for them to swallow). The rest of the spider would float gently away, twitching slightly, as Jiffy gulped and blinked in satisfaction. Then he’d go into immediate stealth mode again, stalking the mangled remains of his prey and eating it in another bite or two. This was THE MOST AMUSING THING I had ever seen as a kid and I never tired of watching him eat. Here is a video of a less-cute turtle eating a goldfish that might kind of give you an idea, but when you watch it, be sure to imagine a smaller, prettier, and less spazzy turtle who is about one squillion times cuter. Also try to mentally tune out the death-metal ambient music in that video, and replace it with an Original Broadway Cast recording of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, because that’s what I liked to listen to back then.
I had Jiffy for all of Grade 3 and 4, and peering into his little tank in our yard was my favourite activity. If there was ever a spider in the house, I’d trap it in a film canister to feed to my little reptilian buddy the next day. And every day after school, I’d catch 3-5 hedge spiders to feed Jiffy before running inside to watch Night Court with my dad.
AND THAT WAS MY CHILDHOOD.
Thank you for asking.
PS, that is why I loved my old masthead, with its joyfully hungry turtle as photographed by Gwen Turner Juarez.