On Overcoming a Debilitating Fear... of Turtles

It's not a great exaggeration to say that last weekend, I walked into my own worst nightmare: the New York Turtle & Tortoise Society's annual Turtle and Tortoise Show. I had decided it was time to kick my ridiculous phobia -- and I figured an unconventional fear deserved an unconventional attempt to beat it.
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It started some time in the early '90s on a sleepy, suburban street in Maryland. I was about 3 years old, probably wearing my favorite hat -- a pink acid-wash denim baseball cap, because again, it was the early '90s -- and enjoying a lovely day when it happened: A turtle* crept out from the bush I was standing next to, startling me so badly that I broke into a sprint and never looked back.

I had seen this bush shake violently before, which had unnerved me quite a bit. Now I had finally seen the creature that had caused that bush to move on its own -- and that creature was crazy scary. When you are 3 years old and your only exposure to turtles has been a smiling green cartoon in your picture books, the wrinkly neck and beady eyes of the real thing are terrifying. You're sure you're seeing a monster -- a bush-shaking, up-to-no-good mini-dragon that would certainly live under your bed and/or in your closet if given the chance. So I was distressed. From then on, whenever I passed that bush, I would run and pray that I hadn't woken the beast again.

I'd love to be able to say that by the time I matured a bit -- let's say by the time I turned 7 -- I stopped being scared of turtles. But no. I have carried this fear with me ever since.

About a year ago, I came to a realization that helped me justify this phobia I've been grappling with for more than 20 years: This episode with the turtle is my first negative memory. That turtle introduced me to fear and made me feel threatened right outside my own home. Before that day, my memories are just a blur of playing with my neighbor's cocker spaniel, licking the spoon when my mom made brownies and tea parties with my stuffed animals.

I've always known that this fear (officially called "chelonaphobia") was, more or less, irrational. Whenever anyone hears about it, they A. laugh for a very long time and then B. say, "But couldn't you walk faster than a turtle?" Yes, maybe. Probably, even. But do we not remember the tale of the tortoise and the hare? Everyone underestimated that reptile, and he showed them. Also, those things live basically forever, and they have a violent streak: Just last year, a turtle couple made headlines when, after 115 years of bliss, they "divorced" and the female bit off part of the male's shell. And finally, let's not forget that turtles are thought to have survived whatever wiped out the dinosaurs. (Read that again: Turtles were impervious to the horrible thing that killed what are arguably the most terrifying and violent creatures to have ever roamed the Earth. That's not even a little scary? Come on.)

A fear of turtles has been an occasional, though very serious, inconvenience. Friends (and my own parents) like sending me email attachments of turtle photos; they know I'll jump out of my chair and start shaking while I beg whoever is sitting next to me, in a very shrill voice, to please, please, please, delete that email as fast as possible. I walk a few hundred yards out of my way when cutting through Central Park just to avoid the Turtle Pond. Going to zoos kind of sucks. I once went to an animal preserve and, after finding myself in a tortoise habitat -- there was no sign! -- I flew into such a panic that I jumped over a barricade to escape it. I've had terrible dreams about turtles flying at my face, chasing me with the intent of gumming me to death, and hiding in my bed.

It's not a great exaggeration, then, to say that last weekend, I walked into my own worst nightmare: the New York Turtle & Tortoise Society's annual Turtle and Tortoise Show. Dreaming of a day when I could open email attachments in peace, I decided it was time to kick my ridiculous phobia -- and I figured an unconventional fear deserved an unconventional attempt to overcome it. A turtle and tortoise show is sort of like a dog show, but with less prancing and fewer leashes.

Oh my God, were there fewer leashes.

One of the reasons I managed to convince myself I could handle attending the show was a very specific line in the rules: "All containers must be escape proof!" I assumed that it must be a serious stipulation if it was going to be bolded and italicized.

And yet, as I walked up to the school in Greenwich Village where the show was held on Saturday, the first thing I saw was a turtle, nowhere near its escape-proof container, skittering across the ground. (Don't tell me turtles don't skitter; I've seen them.) I was already on edge, but my anxiety level spiked at the sight. As I signed in at the front desk outside the entry gate, I inquired as casually as I could about how many turtles were present ("we have 67 so far!"). Meanwhile, another turtle scampered (again, I've seen the scampering!) right out and onto the sidewalk before its owner snatched it up. I don't know what I had expected from a turtle show, but it certainly hadn't been a reptilian free-for-all with creatures going rogue and trying to break free.

But I entered. I entered as if the ground was littered with landmines and any sudden movement could lead to my demise, but I entered.

I started talking to the turtle owners -- an exceptionally friendly group of people, I have to say. I heard a few things that didn't necessarily help with my nerves: one guy described feeding his red slider turtle filet mignon, while another told me that he'd seen his male tortoises bite the female's face when trying to mate with her. He also mentioned that he'd never seen his pets drink water. Before that moment, I had thought that the need for water was the one thing all living beings had in common.

These gruesome tidbits were offset by an overwhelming amount of turtle love. People kissing turtles. People hugging turtles. People cooing at their turtles. People pulling their turtles around in a refurbished Barbie Grand Cherokee and on a scooter. I swear the turtles were eating it right up. There were scrapbooks, posters and photo albums chronicling the turtles' lives. One owner described his pet as "the Marilyn Monroe of tortoises." An entire area was sectioned off for a turtle-themed garage sale (I love a good bargain, but this was a little much for me). There was a lot of insisting that "turtles are just like dogs!" and I heard specific creatures referred to as "precious" and "beautiful" and "majestic."

And then a single syllable escaped my mouth that I never, ever could have expected: "Aww!"

I'd just seen two sleepy baby turtles cuddling, and they were pretty damn adorable.

I don't know what it was about seeing those little guys -- essentially newborns, still so young and fresh to the world that their sexes couldn't even be determined yet -- but the rest of the day was a lot easier for me. I got closer to the massive tortoises lumbering around. By the time I made my way around to the snapping turtles, I was more fascinated than scared, and these were the ones with pointy shells, spiny tails, and diets of live fish. (I was, however, grateful when the owner covered the container of the matamatas before they got too "stressed out.")

Once the time came to announce the winners, I sat pretty calmly amongst all the people and their pets as white, red and blue ribbons, as well as a large best in show trophy, were doled out. I was not yet in the know enough to understand what made some turtles superior to others (there were two categories of judging criteria: ownership responsibility and quality of the animal), but I clapped for all the winners. Everyone was so happy and so proud that for a few minutes, it wasn't too hard to forget how stressed out and anxious I'd been when I'd arrived at the event.

I haven't necessarily eradicated my turtle fear. I don't plan to take advantage of the society's free adoption program, but I am inclined to think that turtles are more awe-inspiring and interesting than horrifying and evil. I think if I went back to that house in Maryland, I could face off against my old adversary. I'm sure he's still there. He's probably going to outlive us all.

* I realize that turtles and tortoises are two different things. Generally, from here on out, I'm going to use "turtle" to cover all my bases. To clarify, my phobia applies to both.

Scenes from the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society's 2013 Turtle and Tortoise Show

Photos by Sam Wilkes unless otherwise noted.

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