After six months of hibernation, Koopa was more than a little bit groggy.
This has been a roller coaster of an emotional year for me. My girlfriend and her child moved in during the summer, and it's been great having a family of my own. But sadly, shortly after my new family came together, we lost a member of that family.My beloved little baby tortoise Koopa died in a tragic accident back in August. It's taken me a while to work up the courage to write about it, and it still haunts and saddens me to this day.
Koopa came out of hibernation in spring and seemed to be happy and healthy.
A summer at the vet
The year started out well for myself and Koopa. She came out of hibernation a little early and seemed happy and healthy. She had a full appetite and was very active after her 6-month slumber, which is always a good sign. However, in April I started noticing an odd black residue lining her mouth. I feared that this might be a symptom of something like mouth rot, and so after waiting a couple days to see if it cleared up on its own, I took her to a local veterinarian.
The vet suspected that the problem was likely a bacterial respiratory infection, which is a common condition for tortoises. If left untreated, it can develop into more serious illnesses such as pneumonia, which can be fatal. But it's fairly easy to treat if caught early, so the vet started Koopa on a regimen of antibiotics. She also took a blood sample and cultures from the mouth to try to identify the specific contagion.
We started with a series of antibiotic shots administered every three days for a few weeks. Koopa did not like those at all! I would place her in an old Amazon cardboard box in order to take her to the vet, and it was clear that she did not like being placed in those boxes. The shots also seemed to hurt or cause slight discomfort, as I would sometimes see her stretch or roll her leg after getting the shot. It was a motion similar to how a person might rotate your arm around to stretch out a sore shoulder. But since it was her front leg, it often resulted in her faceplanting into the ground. It was a little cute and funny, and I wish I had video of it.
You may see a similar residue after a tortoise eats (from the wetness of the food),
but if it persists and darkens, then it is indicative of a respiratory infection.
The vet also recommended that I keep Koopa indoors until the variable spring weather passed and the consistent heat of summer showed up. She wanted a stable temperature and environment for Koopa in order to help manage the infection. I didn't have a terrarium or anything, so I had to keep Koopa in a large cardboard box with a heat lamp mounted over it. Koopa didn't like the box very much, so I'd let her out in the back yard whenever it was warm enough.
The black residue eventually started clearing up, and Koopa seemed to be doing very well. She kept a healthy appetite all throughout the treatment. In fact, she ate way more than I had ever seen her eat. She grew considerably over the course of the summer, increasing her weight by a whole third.
But the culture returned positive for a particularly nasty reptillian infection called mycoplasma. This forced us to also have to give her a regimen of a liquid antibiotic over the course of several months. I'd have to mix the antibiotic into her food every few days. This was easy enough, as I'd usually just use the syringe to spread the medicine over a dandelion flower. Dandelions were her favorite food, and she would gobble the medicated flowers up in no time, leaving virtually no trace!
Again, she did not show any worrisome symptoms, and it seemed that we had the illness well under control. It was a huge relief, as I was very worried when she first became sick. The vets did an excellent job of taking care of her, and it seemed that she was going to make a full recovery. We expected that the worst case scenario was that she would remain a carrier for the disease, and could relapse or spread it to other tortoises. But it would be easy enough to control, and she didn't live with any other tortoises, so there was no risk of infection.
We had to keep Koopa inside during the spring in order to maintain a stable temperature and environment.
Preparing for indoor hibernation
Just to be safe, I resolved to hibernate Koopa indoors this winter. I wanted to keep her out of the elements so that I wouldn't have to worry about a severely cold or wet winter possibly aggravating her condition and resulting in a relapse during hibernation.
I had planned on buying a medium-size terrarium and lining it with a faux-dirt mat and maybe some real dirt from the backyard. I would place her little tortoise-shell shelter in the terrarium so that she would have a dark, secluded place to sleep, and I would cover the terrarium with a blanket or towels to help insulate it.
I would rest easy knowing that she was not exposed to the elements, and that I could easily check on her condition whenever I would want to.
But I won't get to put that plan into practice. At the beginning of August, my girlfriend and I took a trip to the beach at Carlsbad, California (our favorite summer vacation spot). We had to leave Koopa unattended for several days in the backyard. I've left Koopa alone for days at a time before without ever having any problems. Tortoises are mostly self-sufficient as long as they have shelter, water, and food to graze on. The backyard had sprinklers to provide her with water, and there were weeds in the lawn that she could graze on when hungry.
And sure enough, after returning from our four-day trip, Koopa was safe and sound. We administered her last dose of the oral antibiotic, and it seemed like the summer worries were all over.
We had a lovely family trip, and came back home to a happy, healthy Koopa.
That all changed during the weekend, as that night would be the last time that I saw my dear, sweet Koopa alive.
My girlfriend and I had a busy weekend. We went out to lunch with friends on Saturday, and attended the Las Vegas Star Trek Convention that Sunday. So I didn't see Koopa at all that weekend, since we weren't home during the day.
After returning from the convention on Sunday night, I went out into the backyard to water some plants. It was then that I made a horrifying discovery - a sight that haunts my dreams to this day. I turned the corner to the side of the house to find Koopa laying motionless, upside down on her back, with her legs up in the air. I've seen her on her back before, but I immediately knew that this was different. I let out a tremendous scream that scared my next door neighbor, and I picked Koopa up to find that she was already dead.
It was a horrifying sight. Dried blood caked her mouth, nose, and eyes. Her legs and head were stiff with rigor mortis. There was nothing I could do. I brought her into the house crying. It was similar to the time her burrow flooded, except that this time, I didn't get to her in time. Koopa should have lived to be sixty or eighty years old. She could very well have outlived me. But now she'll never have that opportunity. My beautiful little baby Koopa - only four years old - was gone. Once again, I had lost a pet that I had every reason to expect would be a life-long companion.
Perhaps the worst part of it all is that I don't really know what happened to her. At first, I assumed that another animal must have gotten to her. Perhaps a cat or a bird had picked her up and dropped her. But I don't think that is the case. I suspect that Koopa probably attempted to climb up the wall or back gate and fell over on her back. She had grown so much this year that she may have been too big now to successfully turn herself back over, and the fact that she tipped over on the pavement of the patio meant she had no dirt or rocks to use as leverage.
The idea of her laying there like that, suffering a long death while I was away, is unbearably gut-wrenching. Guilt has been a tremendous issue during the grieving process, and it's been very hard for me to reconcile the fact that this whole situation could have been avoided if I had just been there to help her. And that if virtually anything had gone differently on that day, then she might not have been in that place at that time. She could so easily still be alive. She should still be alive!
Laid to rest
I cleaned her body as best I could and wrapped her in a towel, and my girlfriend searched for a pet cemetary. The next day, we took her body to Craig Road Pet Cemetery in order to have her body cremated. My girlfriend drove me to the cemetery while I clutched Koopa's body in my hands, sobbing and gently stroking her shell. Making that drive to the cemetery, and picking out the urn for her ashes was one of the hardest things that I've ever had to do.
Koopa's final resting place. 2011 - 2015
I decided on a simple ceramic urn with a desert landscape lining its circumference. I thought it was a very appropriate final resting place for her. A few days later, the cemetery had finished the cremation, sealed the urn, and called me to come pick it up. Picking up the urn was also one of the hardest things that I've ever had to do.
In addition to the urn and certificate of cremation, the cemetery also gave us a "keepsake" with a poem, pictures of Koopa, and an imprint of her feet (a "paw print"). The urn and keepsake currently rests along with her old feeding dish on a shelf in my living room, next to the window overlooking her burrow. That way, she can stay close to her home - where she belongs - where she should be.
... life goes on ...
The burrow itself still stands in my backyard. It has become a home for spiders and other creepy crawlies, but it still exists almost exactly as it did while Koopa was alive. I haven't decided what to do with it yet. Someday, I would like to get another tortoise. And if I do, perhaps that burrow can be home to another animal that needs a home.
Losing both Nipper and Koopa within a couple years of each other has been a devastating gut punch from an unsympathetic universe. Nevertheless, I love tortoises. I always have. They are such simple and gentle animals. I've had pet tortoises since I was seven or eight years old - almost my entire life. Being a "tortoise dad" is part of my identity, and it's strange to imagine my life without one.
There was only the one year after I moved out of my parents' house and into my own place that I did not have responsibility over a pet tortoise. The tortoises at my parents' were still there of course, but they weren't mine anymore. I was alone for the first time, with no roommate and no pets. And then Koopa came along.
I'll miss the simple joy of watching her eat.
Koopa was a very special animal. She literally just wandered into my life one day. She offered me companionship in my new home, and having her there made the house feel genuinely like a "home" rather than just the place that I lived in. I have eagerly anticipated the arrival of spring every year since because I knew that Koopa would be there to greet me. But next spring ...
Koopa's passing has left an emptiness. The house may be alive with the laughter of a young child, but there is still a haunting somberness about it. Coming home from work doesn't feel the same without the daily ritual of feeding her. And the drive home alongside the parks that I used to pick dandelions from is a frequent reminder of another ritual rendered moot. I rarely go out into the backyard anymore, and the yard itself feels depressing and barren. Though a hummingbird feeder that my girlfriend put up has livened it up a bit. Still, the only reason I go back there is to tend to a dandelion plant that I have planted in Koopa's memory. But a dandelion is nothing without a tortoise to eat it, and every time I see a dandelion in the yard or along the roadside, I can't help but think of Koopa (and Nipper), and how much I wish I they were still here to nibble on the little yellow flower.
A tortoise may not be soft and cuddly like a kitten, or playful as a puppy. They don't show affection (and might not even be capable of it). But our ability to love is not limited by the cuddliness of a creature or its ability to show us love in return. Koopa was my precious little baby. She was my family for three years before meeting my girlfriend. I loved her dearly.
I wonder how big she would have been next year. Now I'll never get to see her grow. I'll never be able to pick dandelions for her, nor experience the joy of watching her giddily chomp down on them. I'll miss shining my flashlight into her burrow, calling her name, and watching her scamper out for feeding time. I'll miss her following me around the backyard. I'll miss our games of hide-and-seek. Not a day has gone by that I haven't thought of Koopa in some way or another. I'd give almost anything to go back to that August afternoon in which I last saw her alive. I wish that I could fix this problem by simply taking her to the vet or by giving her a shot. But I can't change the past; all I can do is push forward and keep living.
When these wounds have healed, perhaps I can be a tortoise dad again. But in the meantime, Koopa's death leaves a gaping hole in my heart, as if a part of my very soul has been taken from me. This brand new family that I had just found is now one member short.
Our little family now feels incomplete. We miss you, Koopa.