Oogway is Five

Five years ago, Oogway showed up out of the blue sky. Quite literally, as I figure that she was dropped by a crow. (Initial blog post with photos of super-cute baby turtle).

I haven’t written about Oogway for a while, since her third birthday in fact. This is not for lack of interesting developments. Life has just been hectic. Overwhelming at times.

There is so much to share that I can’t possibly convey it all in a single blog post. I am going to pick five topics, in honour of this fifth anniversary.

1. Growth

Oogway was 2.8cm (1.1 inches) in shell length when I found her.

Baby Mauremys reevesii pond turtle
Oogway was teeny when I found her.

Today, her shell exceeds 15cm (6 inches).

Mauremys reevesii pond turtle
Same hand, same turtle, five years later

But it is her bulk that is truly impressive. As you can see from the photos above, she is a big, fat healthy turtle now 😊 

Having picked her up each and every day that we’ve been together (when I’m home), I definitely feel the difference in heft. Imagine picking up a paper clip; then a brick. This is obviously far from a perfect analogy, but you get the idea.

When I look at Oogway, I always recall how tiny she was, how weak and helpless. I see how strong, vital and alert she is now. I can’t help but smile. (Though I do kind of wonder-worry how big she will eventually become.)

Mauremys reevesii pond turtle
Oogway going for a stroll

2. Intelligence

As impressive and satisfying as her physical development has been, Oogway’s intelligence has been the real shocker.

Back in 2020, I shared a video of Oogway coming to my hand of her own accord when she was ready to come back inside. She did this the very first time I offered my hand, and every time thereafter.

Moreover, when I let her out the first time it was warm enough to do so in 2021, she remembered and came immediately to my hand.

Then this happened:

Uh huh. Oogway decided that she was big enough to open the door herself. 

I first noticed on 27 April 2021. The door was open and the turtle inside, though I distinctly recalled having put Oogway outside. “Hmmm,” I thought. “Could she have…? Nah. That’s ridiculous.” I figured maybe I’d let her in and had forgotten about it. Maybe I’d forgotten to close the door too.

The next day…the door was open again, turtle inside. “No waaay.” I was certain I had not opened the screen door after setting her outside.

So I put her out on the balcony again and hid where she couldn’t see me. There I waited. And waited. And waited. Picture it—a (ridiculous) human hiding behind a door, peeking through a crack, waiting for a pond turtle to maybe possibly open a screen door.

Oogway did not open the door. She sunbathed. Outsmarted again, I was.

The next day, I hid immediately after putting her outside. 20-30 minutes later, she opened the door.

Eureka! I ran downstairs to announce this incredible turn of events. No one believed me.

It took me until 1 May to video her in the act.

And every day since, Oogway has opened the door to let herself in, including her first day outside this year, which was on 8 March. Out on the balcony she went. About 10 seconds later, she turned around, opened the door and came back inside. To be fair, it was still a bit nippy. But the important thing was that she remembered.

When she was little, I picked her up and brought her inside in the evening, or when it was too hot outside. I postulate that she first learned to associate the door as dividing inside and outside from this routine.

Next, she learned to associate my hand as a ticket home, hence her acceptance of my outstretched hand starting in 2020.

And finally, she came to understand that she no longer needed me or my hand to cross the threshold. She was big and strong enough at age four to open the door by herself whenever she wanted. (They grow up so quickly!)

Over a period of four years, she observed. She comprehended. She problem-solved to achieve her desired outcome.

In case you’re wondering, she has opened the screen door to let herself out only twice. Once in May 2021 and once in September 2021. Oogway is a home body at heart. She prefers to be inside.

Mauremys reevesii pond turtle
Oogway is such the home body.

3. Hide and Seek

Oogway has a fenced-in area next to the balcony. It’s all hers. She can sunbathe. She can make use of a shaded area (which seems to be what she enjoys the most). She can also teleport herself out.

The first time it happened was 20 May 2021. I was away. I received a message late at night. Being nitrogen-saturated and sleep-deprived, I struggled to comprehend the text, which read something along the lines of: “Can’t find turtle.” 

Hours of chaos and hilarity ensued. Much of the house was upended. A flurry of text messages was exchanged. Oogway was eventually located in the back of a closet, underneath a suitcase. She was calm, cool and collected, which is more than can be said for the humans involved. “What’s the fuss?” she seemed to ask.

Oogway disappeared again on 4 October. In this instance, I was home alone. I thought to myself, “Where would I go if I were Oogway?” Turns out, I think like a turtle. The first place I looked was where I found her, wedged between two camera cases, looking as content as a turtle can possibly be.

I should mention that each time this has happened, there has been no evidence of how Oogway went from inside-the-fence turtle to no-longer-inside-the-fence turtle. Nothing out of place. Nothing moved. No clue whatsoever.

And so it was that on 13 October last year, Oogway left her area, once again without a hint of how she did it. I was away. The relevant humans were too busy to search for her. A few hours after her disappearance though, Oogway re-appeared inside her home area, once again calm, cool and collected.

It’s like she has Scotty beaming her from place to place (Star Trek reference).

The funniest incident took place on 21 June 2021. My mother-in-law was watching TV on the ground floor. Oogway was on the second floor, supposedly sleeping inside her fenced-in area. As I hear the tale told, my mother-in-law yelped in shock when she saw a turtle saunter into the living room to watch TV.

When I confronted her about this, Oogway denied any knowledge of the events of that evening, now dubbed the TV Incident of 2021.

Mauremys reevesii pond turtle
Oogway has not managed to teleport out of her terrarium. Yet.

4. Meal Time

Getting Oogway to eat was one of the first challenges we faced. It took a few days before Oogway finally accepted food. Even after that, she didn’t eat much or often for quite some time.

For many months, she would only eat when we fed her by hand. Tiny pellet by tiny pellet.

Somewhere along the way (I can’t remember exactly when), we weaned her off the hand feeding. She began to accept food pellets that we dropped into the water. We took this as a sign that she was growing up and becoming more sure of herself.

Then came July 2022.

While I was away, my wife decided to try giving her pellets by hand again (bigger ones now). Guess what? Oogway decided that she prefers to be pampered.

Despite being big enough to open doors for herself, Oogway now refuses to eat food dropped into the water. She insists on being hand-fed, one pellet at a time (sometimes she demands two when she’s greedy).

At first, I thought, “OMG what a pain!” But as soon as I tried it, my heart melted. Oogway reaches up with her mouth open to take food ever-so-gently from whoever is feeding her. She does her best not to snip fingers. If she does, she lets go (except if she’s super-duper hungry, in which case table manners fall by the wayside). She looks up, tells you she wants more. And when she’s done, she tells you she’s had enough.

It’s quality time that I enjoy every evening that I am home.

Baby Mauremys reevesii pond turtle
Teeny-tiny Oogway being hand-fed

5. Communication

Oogway talks.

No one believed me when I first noticed this. She didn’t speak often when she was small, seemingly only to me.

The first sound I noticed was sort of a short, scratchy, staccato grunt. There are no words that describe the sound accurately, so that’s the best I can do.

She did this most often (though not exclusively) at night. I’ve always had excellent hearing, even when I’m asleep. I would wake up with the feeling that there had been a sound. Most of the time, I would listen, hear nothing more, than go back to sleep. I gradually figured out that Oogway was the source.

It took some time until I worked out that the sound was probably an indication of intent/ frustration, an expression along the lines of, “I want to….(insert urgent turtle activity)”

Like, “I want to go outside of my terrarium to play now,” or something similar.

Obviously I cannot translate the sound directly into human meaning, but I am certain that she is communicating something akin to desire/ emotion/ need.

Then there is the high-pitch squeak/ whistle. The frequency is high enough that many people might not notice it, might not even be able to hear it.

This is a sound I associate with excitement/ anticipation/ happiness.

She often makes this sound when I go to greet her. I believe this may be in anticipation of either being fed or being transported to do something interesting, as the case may be. When Oogway makes this sound, her body language and facial expression indicate the same things—excitement/ anticipation/ happiness.

I wondered whether and how these sounds might be used by pond turtles living without a private balcony, recreational zone and personal caretaker. An answer of sorts came in the form of a paper published at the end of 2022, titled Common evolutionary origin of acoustic communication in choanate vertebrates (1). 

Researchers in Switzerland recorded sounds from 53 animal species, including many chelonians. They arrived at the conclusion that turtles talk. Even though Oogway’s species was not represented in the study, it is clear that chelonian chatter is a thing. Of course, Oogway taught me that way before the research came out. (Read article about this here.)

[Update 23 June 2023: Gabriel Cohen, primary author of the above-referenced paper, pointed me to another paper about sounds made by a Mauremys sinensis, a turtle species in the same genus as Oogway: Chinese striped-neck turtles vocalize underwater and show differences in peak frequency among different age and sex groups.]

You can probably tell that it’s been a fabulous, fun-filled five years for me, and hopefully for Oogway as well.

As I reflect on the experiences I’ve related above (and many more), I realise that the unexpected appearance of Oogway—with all the ensuing adventures, incidents and mishaps—has forced me to ponder an issue that I never imagined I would have need to consider.

Namely—Is it possible to love a turtle?

The answer—I am happy to report—is a resounding yes.

Previous Posts about Oogway (in reverse chronological order)

(1) Jorgewich-Cohen, G., Townsend, S.W., Padovese, L.R. et al. Common evolutionary origin of acoustic communication in choanate vertebrates. Nat Commun 13, 6089 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-33741-8