10/02/2009 05:29 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Caring For Pets Helps Us--And The World

The other day my brother asked me exactly why I still bother keeping pet tortoises. I was surprised by the question, because this brother of mine is a great and compassionate animal lover who lives in a houseful of dogs and cats and devotes himself endlessly to their pleasure. It took me a moment or two to formulate an answer.

"I take care of them," I said.

"Yes, but do they take care of you back? Do they even know you? I mean a dog obviously does and a cat too, at least if it's her fancy, but tortoises aren't exactly warm and fuzzy."

In my case that's a good thing, because I'm allergic to most animals with hair--I'm even allergic to certain people--although at times I torture my immune system by keeping them around. I started to defend the intrinsic value of poikilotherms (that's cold blooded creatures, for you non-zoologists out there, or, more precisely, animals that depend on an external heat source to adjust their internal temperature) but I stopped myself. There was a mammalian certain bias to my brother's question, yes, but more than that it signaled that he simply wasn't thinking of the whole thing the way I was. Most everyone knows how wonderful it is to have a beloved dog or cat in your life, but what about other kinds of living creatures?

"The taking care is the thing," I said. "It doesn't matter if you're taking care of a reptile or a koala bear. From the standpoint of internal motivation, it's compassionate. It's pure love, you know, the compassion that all those medical studies show does us good deep down in the neurotransmitter department."


"Altruistic behavior is good for the altruist," I said. "It drops blood pressure, lowers cholesterol, and boosts the immune system. I nurture those pets in my back yard for the same reason people grow plants in a greenhouse or on their kitchen windowsill, the same reason all kids want to be zookeepers; I do it because it feels good."

"Really?" he said. "I've seen turtle poop and it's not pretty."

He freely mixed the terms turtle and tortoise because all shelled reptiles are turtles. True tortoises (at least in America, in Britain it gets a bit confusing) are a subset of turtles characterized by legs that lift them off the ground like columns and a completely terrestrial lifestyle.

"My turtle garden has a certain Zen to it, a certain Dao," I said.

"I suppose you're going to tell me that caretaking pets is a meditation."

"As a matter of fact it is," I answered. "Meditation is at least in part about expanding your perceptions and connecting with something greater than you. It engenders compassion. I find satisfaction in creating a natural environment in which living creatures can thrive, even if it's for baby tortoises inside and away from predatory raccoons. Cutting up vegetables for my turtles, planting seeds that will sprout in the yard so they can nibble on the shoots, arranging trees so they'll have shade and falling fruit."

"But turtles? Why not a parrot? At least one of those can talk back to you?"

"I love parrots," I said, "but my nose isn't so crazy about feather dust. Anyway the kind of animal is beside the point. I just have a soft spot for turtles. On one level they're consummately self-reliant, carrying their house around on their back, but on another low and slow and helpless and forgotten. Nobody cares about them anymore. Trawlers catch drown sea turtles in nets, cars and trucks run over them on the road, developers bulldoze them into oblivion, hungry native people eat them... ."

"I know the story," he interrupted wearily.

And well he does, of course. I've been taking care of turtles nearly as long as he's been on the planet, some 43 years now. Years ago I even wrote a book about my exotic adventures with pets.

The environmental catastrophe unfolding around us has given me a different view of keeping pets. I admit to feelings of helpless rage against the selfishness and hubris that leads us to squander natural resources, plunder nature's gifts, and commit horrific acts against other living creatures. Along with countless other creatures, turtles are going extinct,
so these days I buy only captive raised animals and try to breed them to keep pressure off wild populations and eventually perhaps even return offspring to the wild.

I wish I could do more. I wish I could shake everyone up enough to have them open their eyes and see what's almost gone. Perhaps I'm not brave enough for all that, or maybe too comfortable in my tortoise garden, because most of the time I just combat what I see as a downward spiral in consciousness by going outside with a plate of chopped tomatoes in my hand, or maybe a few soft raspberries.

Weak as this effort may seem, I think it's rather important. Imagine, just for a moment, what the world would look like if we all set aside our games and diversions for a while and cared of the frogs and the polar bears and the tarantulas and the squid--fed them, protected their homes, showed our earth consciousness by our actions. What a world we would have if we turned off the TV in favor of the sounds of birds and noticed, with a growing sense of profound unease, that we didn't hear them.

It doesn't make any difference what creature you nurture, nor even what species of vanishing plant you try to save, but if you take on the responsibility of an exotic pet, please make sure it was bred in captivity not taken from the wild. See what you learn about the creature, and nature, from the act of caring for it. See what you can learn about yourself. Like children, animals that depend upon us (and at this state they all do) serve as bright and shining mirrors in which we can see who and what we are.

If you like turtles and want to help, you might wish to visit one of these sites: (Be sure and open the links at the top) (A government site) (New England focus) (scientific information about the state of many species) (click on support button to help) (marine turtles)

Arthur Rosenfeld is a novelist and tai chi master. Learn more about him at and see his books at