For a brief period in elementary school, it became the cool thing for all the kids to keep these tiny frogs. The aquariums were lovely and picturesque, with lids that came in bright pink or dark blue and colorful, iridescent pebbles all along the bottom. It was a trend, like Silly Bandz or Japanese erasers, that swept through my elementary school like fire and then swept out just as quickly.
But while most of my friends promptly lost interest in their amphibious friends (I knew two kids who made the disastrous mistake of “freeing” a frog they didn’t want anymore), I named my two frogs Kermit and Michigan and quickly fell in love.
There was something so peaceful about watching them swim around in that tiny little pink aquarium, so quiet and self-contained.
When Kermit and Michigan passed (it won’t surprise you to learn that tiny frogs living in 12-inch-by-12-inch aquariums on children’s desks don’t live very long), I longed for their unassuming companionship.
After I dragged quite a few snakes and lizards in from the backyard, my parents relented and gave me another chance: a bearded dragon I christened Glaedr (this was in the middle of my Eragon phase), whom my mother insisted on calling Gladys. As offended as I was, Glaedr didn’t seem to mind not being afforded his full dignity, so long as I kept his terrarium full of cozy caves and live crickets.
I watched him as religiously as I’d watched my frogs, thrilled by his hunting and endlessly amused by his widemouthed smile. I trained him to ride around on my shoulder, and he’d nestle there and watch over me as I did homework, wrote papers, applied to college.
When I decided to go to a school halfway across the country, I did so knowing I’d have to leave him behind — but he was in good hands with my mother (even if she did still call him Gladys).
When I finally moved out of the dorms, one of the first things I bought for my new apartment was a red-eared slider turtle. Having moved on from Eragon to Terry Pratchett, I named her Great A’Tuin — Tuey for short. Even before she arrived, it was comforting just to have a tank in my room again. Once she came home, it was even better — especially because a few months later, the pandemic broke out, and now I barely leave the house at all.
Tuey and I live alone, and if it weren’t for her, I think I’d have lost it by now. It’s somehow much easier to be alone with your anxieties when you have a small reptile to tell them to. And no matter what problems you bring her, Tuey will simply blink at you slowly and continue sunning herself on her rock.
Tuey’s unflappable calm in the face of this pandemic reminds me of a Dorothy Sayers quote. “How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks…” she wrote. And how fleeting is the upheaval of this pandemic when compared with the massive continuity of this one little turtle jumping into her water, just like all slider turtles before her did and all slider turtles will after she’s gone.
On the other hand, you have our family cat, whom my mom tells me is getting anxious with the whole family staying home all day. And the dog, whom my dad says is stir-crazy and misses her friends at the dog park. (Glaedr lived a full life and passed away a couple years ago.) Tuey, though — Tuey doesn’t seem to mind much of anything, so long as she gets fed on time.
And at a time when everything can feel like it’s crumbling around our ears, it’s wonderful to live with the one creature who genuinely doesn’t seem to mind.
It’s a common opinion that pets that aren’t mammals don’t care about their owners or want to play and cuddle. Reptiles do care about their people, though, especially the people who treat them like living creatures and not attractive decor.
Tuey knows my voice and always wants to come see what I’m talking about. She loves to be handled and loves to play — either in her aquarium and her water, which is too cute and funny for words, or with me, crawling around on my laptop while I’m trying to get work done. And when she’s done crawling, sometimes she even likes to sleep on me.
I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know when I’ll be able to go outside without a mask again or what’s going to come of my university in the fall. I do know, though, that when I tell Tuey about all that, she’ll just blink at me slowly. Then slide into the water.
Johnathan David has been a reptile hobbyist since childhood. He has years of experience in herpetoculture and has cared for geckos (2 gargoyles), skinks (blue tongue) and a frog (poison dart).