DALLAS — Rose Schroeder stands outside her back door, having managed to keep the dogs from slipping out, and she bangs the aluminum pie pan with a spoon. Sure enough, as she promised, they come running from all corners of the yard. Well, not running exactly — but moving speedily for a turtle. It’s time for breakfast, delayed today because of the visitor, who was not keen to show up at 6 a.m. Some of the turtles have given up and ambled back to a moist, cool spot in the garden dirt. The tiniest turtles, a little larger than a bottle cap, are confined in cages so they don’t get stepped on. The turtles that live in water don’t answer the morning call; they are fed separately. It’s a sight to see: dozens of rescued turtles lumbering toward Schroeder as she offers them chunks of canned dog food, ripe strawberries and bananas. "My current estimate is 118,” says Schroeder, although it is inconceivable how she administers an accurate count, what with the turtles’ habit of digging under flowerpots and decaying firewood. Not to mention her ability to tell one turtle from another. Oh, but the turtle lady knows her creatures’ habits. She knows all their hidey holes, just as she knows that turtles have individual personalities and behaviors. "They’re like kids,” says the mother of three, who is a retired Garland, Texas, schoolteacher. "They’re all different.”
Turtle rescuersThis collection began more than 20 years ago when Al Schroeder, a retired computer science instructor at Richland College, brought home a turtle for their son. After that, if the vacationing Schroeders spotted a turtle crossing a rural highway, they often brought the animal home to protect it from being hit by a vehicle. Red-eared sliders, aquatic turtles, move across land when their watery territory gets too crowded. They are seen crossing roads in search of food and water. "No turtle left behind” is Schroeder’s motto. When the couple move to their retirement home in the Texas Hill Country in a few years, they will relocate the turtles, too. The property’s fence line has been made turtle-proof by dumping river rocks along its perimeter.
Hearty appetitesTurtles open their jaws wide and chomp big chunks out of a strawberry or peeled banana; they eat blueberries whole. One spoonful of canned dog food with a helping of fruit seems to satiate them, and they slowly move away from the feeding area. Schroeder walks to the back of the yard to feed the six aquatic turtles that live in a plastic, preformed in-ground pond liner. She calls to them, clacks again on the pie tin with a long-handled teaspoon and tells them to line up in orderly fashion. And, by golly, the turtles obey her. They put their little clawed front feet on the edge of the pond liner, their striped heads extended, one turtle next to the other. She offers the long-handled spoon with a chunk of dog food to them, one by one. The teaspoon is a required tool, she says, to keep her fingers out of snapping range.
Getting exasperated"The water ones are a lot of trouble. We don’t take water turtles anymore,” she says. "We have too many in that one pond.” The other pond liner leaks, but it’s where the aquatic turtles go when they misbehave. "They fight over the food,” Schroeder says. "They’ll hold another one down until it drowns. They have to go in there for time-out.” On cue, one of the turtles drags another, which has a generous lump of food in its mouth, under water. The aggressor holds the other by the skin, about where you would imagine a turtle’s earlobe to be. The turtle flails in the water and eventually lets go of its breakfast. The food fight is repeated as Schroeder tries to finish mealtime. "They’re just like kids,” she says. "I don’t want to have to whack anybody in front of company, but it looks like I’m gonna have to.”
Earthworm treatsSchroeder’s small backyard is mostly taken up with turtle habitats and an old greenhouse she will no longer enter because she fears snakes are holed up inside. She mows infrequently, for fear of harming a turtle. She maintains ornamental plants along her back walk because the vegetation provides dark places for the turtles and also attracts insects for the turtles to eat. Schroeder is careful to say that she thoroughly washes her hands with antibacterial soap after every turtle interaction, to prevent contracting salmonella. Turtles can carry the germ, so it is not wise to add turtles to a household with infants or small children, the elderly or persons with weak immune systems. The turtles’ favorite treat is earthworms. Schroeder has stacked tires in a corner of her backyard as a worm bin. "They love worms. After it rains, the worms come up to the top of the ground. The turtles start running everywhere because they know that.” Schroeder doesn’t consider her love for turtles unusual. She hints it may be destiny: "My turtle connections started at birth. I was born in a rural farmhouse on the banks of Turtle Creek near Kerrville. I will be buried right up the hill from there in Turtle Creek Cemetery. Maybe I should put a turtle on my tombstone.”