Tuesday, May 16, 2006

What's in a Name?

Photo by Linda Mason Hood
From the very beginning we couldn’t agree on names for the two red-eared sliders I bought in NYC’s Chinatown in the fall of 2003. Just back from a fabulous Ireland vacation, I favored noble Irish names like Niall and Fintan for the emerald green turtles. My husband called them simply Big Turtle and Little Turtle since one was slightly larger than the other. Neither turtle was big, mind you. Both were about the size of silver dollars, which would make them 1-2 months old. My teenage son thought the perfect choice of names was Dinky and Doofus: Dinky for obvious reasons and Doofus because the bigger one seemed particularly uncoordinated, often falling backwards into the water when his awkward attempts to haul himself onto his turtle dock failed utterly. Lacking consensus, we defaulted to the generic names of Big Turtle and Little Turtle, and for about 18 months that’s what most of us called them most of the time.

In the spring of 2005 my worries over the condition of Little Turtle’s shell gave impetus to a name change. Feeling slightly embarrassed at the thought of registering this animal at my local vet with a totally uncreative name like Little Turtle, I quickly renamed both turtles to Billy T and Lilly T. I reasoned that we could make the transition easily since the new names were phonetically close to the names we were accustomed to using.

Before continuing the saga of the names, I have to tell you a few facts about the maturation of turtles. Sexual differences don't become apparent until the carapace (shell on their back) reaches 4 inches in length from head to tail. Well fed captive turtles might reach that size in only 2 years, whereas turtles in the wild might take 3-4 years. At 4 inches they develop certain male characteristics: the front toenails get REALLY long - like Edward Scissorhands - and the tail thickens as the penis develops inside. They also start practicing their mating moves. In human terms, they enter adolescence.

For more than 2 years we assumed Little Turtle, or Lilly T, was female, at first because she was more diminutive and later because her toenails remained short. Only in hindsight did we consider the possibility that she was merely growing more slowly because she wasn’t as healthy. After I set up the 55-gallon tank pictured above with its high quality UVB light and powerful filtration system, Lilly’s health slowly improved. Now, a year later, all traces of shell rot are gone. She’s finally achieved 4 inches in length -- and guess what? Her nails are growing, her tail is thickening, and she’s practicing male mating moves too!

So what’s in a name anyway? I don’t really mean their scientific names, in this case Trachemys scripta elegans, which classifies these turtles among their species. No, I'm referring to the everyday names we give them when we keep them as pets. If the name is meant to express something about the personality of the animal, maybe we should have stopped with Dinky and Doofus. If the name merely describes outward appearance, Big Turtle and Little Turtle would still be appropriate. If the name is related to place of origin, Billy and Lilly (or Lyle, or Larry) are more appropriate than my Irish names since these particular turtles are native to the Mississippi valley from northern Illinois and Indiana to the northern Gulf of Mexico and throughout the south. (Check out the Gulf States Marine Fishery Commission Fact Sheet for lots of interesting facts and a lovely picture.)

It’s becoming clear, the more I think about it, that these turtles’ names are more personal and comprehensive than any one of the factors above. Names give us an easy way to refer to our pets. Once the name becomes habit, we begin to build a whole personality around it and a relationship with the invented personality. The name enables us make a personal connection with the animal. This connection can vary widely from time to time and from animal to animal. It can encompass everything from entertainment to comfort. It elevates our involvement above that of mere animal husbandry. my, my... how we do complicate life, we humans!

This week I was complaining about the identity disruption I was experiencing as I tried to call Lilly by a new name. My husband’s response was, “it’s all in your head.” And you know what? He was right. Identity is just not something turtles worry about. Given time, my concept of Lilly will adjust, I'm sure. Meanwhile, the turtles will go about their slow and simple business -- eating, basking, swimming, sleeping, and forever moving their log around on the bottom of the tank -- without concern for trivial matters like the names humans give them. And I shall practice saying Lyle, Lyle, Lyle…

© 2006, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement


BG said...

long live tilly and lyle

Anonymous said...

i agree with u on what u say about a name... my male is named chicken as he would alway run from the baskin area when he seen us when we first got him. his name was shortened to chick and every one asked why a female name if hes male..lol.. it just stuck was left at that..lol..
turtles are great friends..