Set it free

Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Raphael. Do you recognize that list of names? What if I add in Shredder?

If you are around the same age as me, or if you have children my age, chances are you will recognize that grouping of names from a cartoon called, “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Or, it could be you recognize it because you have young children now. I believe the show is attempting a comeback of sorts.

But, these were the actual names I gave to my pet turtles that my husband and I rescued nearly two years ago.


The first four were stink pot turtles. That is an actual type of turtle. You can look it up. Shredder had only been with us for a year. He was an alligator snapping turtle.

During their time with us, they lived in an elaborate 40 gallon breeder fish tank that had caves and bridges that we constructed for them out of river stones.

When I would tell people that we had a pet snapping turtle, they would just look at me in disbelief. Especially since this type of turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in the world. However, our Shredder was barely the size of my fist when we found him.

Of course, during the course of a year, Shredder had more than doubled in size. He looked pretty ferocious. I don't think he realized this.

All five of these little guys were surprisingly friendly. My entire family was extraordinarily attached to them. They would beg for food like puppies. It's as if they could hear the clicking sounds when you opened their food container. At which point, they would crawl out of their respective caves and stretch their incredibly long necks to the surface of the water in anticipation.

Donatello, the largest stink pot of the bunch, would sun himself on top of the caves and stretch his neck out so I could pet him.

It was an incredible experience. But, we've always known that they couldn't stay with us forever.

The idea was to keep them until they were big enough to be safely released at a pond on my father's farm.

When Shredder was so big that he was carrying part of the cave rocks around on his back, we knew it was time. The 40 gallon tank seemed to shrink drastically as the turtles grew. They were healthy. The weather was warming back up.

As we were gathering them up and securing them safely for transport, I was constructing a million excuses in my mind why we should not let them go. I thought, the weather is consistently warm; they will have trouble finding food; they are too tame; we could keep them for a few more months. Never in my life did I imagine that I would have felt so attached.

However, there were also reasons that kept creeping back in my heart to let me know that releasing them would be the right thing to do. They deserved freedom. They deserved to find mates and to live out their turtle adult lives like turtles were meant to do. They deserved a great big body of water and multiple places to make a home.

Needless to say, I was conflicted.

Sometimes, when we care for something or someone, we want to protect them. We want to shelter them and keep them safe. We want to provide everything they need. We want to keep them in confines of security for as long as we can. Rarely does it occur to us that this is really a selfish thing. We make personal sacrifices in order to provide this safe environment and in our guts we feel as if it is all done out of love. And, I'm not saying that isn't.

But, here's the thing, when we do this we rob the thing/person we love of the right to live freely. We rob them of independence. We rob them of experience.

You've heard the adage, “If you love something, set it free.” Well, it's a lot like that. Except, that “something” or “someone” never fell under our possession to begin with.


Sure, there are times when people and things may need to be dependent upon others for their very survival. This is the state that we originally found the turtles in. But, our task, as caregivers, is not to think that span of time means that we are in possession. It means that we are helpers. To help in a situation like this, is to assist in readying someone (or thing) to eventually care for themselves and subsequently gain independence.

The scary part is once they reach the stage of independence, they also gain the right to make mistakes, encounter dangers, and be hurt. But, in these mistakes, dangers, hurts lie some of the most precious gems of life, as hard as it is to understand.

We did release the turtles. We said our goodbyes and I probably cried more than I should have. Then, we lined them up at the edge of this beautiful pond and watched as they each took steps toward the water on their own.

The water was shallow enough at the edge that we could see how they would react. It was if they had just entered Turtle Disneyland. I cried some more. But, the weight of my tears were offset by the knowledge that they would now live freely. The depth of my fears about them getting sick or hurt was balanced by the heights of living I knew they would experience.

In life, we truly own nothing. We certainly do not “have” people or living things. We only cross paths for a blessed and sometimes short amount of time. And then, that time moves on.
(From L to R) Shredder, Raphael, Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo right before finding their way to the pond.