06/01/2010 10:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Extinction in the Gulf

At the age of twelve, I had already been keeping turtles for years. Most were pond and river turtles--stinkpots, painteds, the occasional mud turtle--caught at my uncle's farm in Connecticut. I used a fish net to get some of them as they swam by, and snatched baskers off logs with my hand. When they were at the edge of my reach, I flipped them into my canoe with a paddle. At pet shops, when I had a little money saved up, I bought exotic species like the beautiful Diamondback Terrapin from the mid-Atlantic states, Indian flap-shelled and Ganges softshell turtles that lacked a hard carapace, and sidenecked water turtles from Central and South America, species that pulled their heads in crookedly rather than straight, the better to keep tabs on its environment with a single, baleful eye.

I kept the turtles together in aquaria and shallow pools around my bedroom, and when my mother drew the line at all that water, I turned to tortoises, species that spent their entire lives on land, walking on columnar legs and laying hard eggs, if I was lucky, in the sand at the corner of the aquarium. I had starred tortoises from India, leopard tortoises from Africa (named not for their pretty shells but for the spots on their skin) pancake tortoises that flattened themselves into cracks between desert rocks--or in my room, between builder's bricks--and beautiful Madagascan radiated tortoises, which I found to follow the lead of some of the teenage girls I was meeting by being short on personality but long on looks.

At the library, I took out every book on turtles I could find, and when I had finished all those, I looked for more general tomes on reptiles, in which the sections on turtles were small but sometimes yielded tasty tidbits of information. I learned that certain turtles can extract oxygen from the water through specialized tissue in their throat and urogenital organs, for example, and that others can negotiate a maze as well as a rat. I found out that one species has antifreeze in its blood and can survive the long, frigid winters of the arctic circle, and that giant equatorial tortoises can live more than 150 years.

When I was done with the school library, I started on the ones around the city. I went to museums, too, and of course New York's Bronx Zoo, where I would later have a summer job. My interest in turtles was insatiable, not only because I found the creatures themselves fascinating, but because planet earth was revealing itself to me through a lens with a shell, teaching me about exotic locales, the complex interactions of species in forest, desert, and riparian communities, and of course about evolution, natural selection, speciation, and the way nature conferred upon us our titles and abilities, judging us swiftly and responding cruelly when our neck is too short, or our toenails too long. I learned about politics, geography, history and culture too--which rivers ran where, what borders were disputed, what indigenous people might be so desperately hungry as to eat their native turtles, or turtle eggs.

One day, in a pet shop on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, I spied what seemed an impossible prize. Floating on some seaweed in a saltwater tank at the front of the store was a quarter-sized hatchling sea turtle. I knew it at once, and could scarcely contain my excitement. I asked the owner, as casually as possible, if the little marine creature was for sale.

"We don't carry sea turtles," he said.

I pointed to the tank. He looked, then frowned. "Must have come in with the seaweed. Didn't even know it was in there. You can have it for fifteen dollars."

I had never paid that much for an animal, and had to run home and beg my mother for help. She took pity on me, and I ran back to the store, heart pounding in fear that some other fancier had beaten me to the punch. The little turtle was still there, however, and I took it home in a plastic cup full of moist paper towel. I set it up in a filtered, heated, 10-gallon aquarium, put in some sea salt, and set it by the window of our New York City apartment so it could get some natural sunlight. I went to the grocery store and bought a piece of cod, sliced it up, took out a tiny sliver, doused it in calcium, and hand fed it to the little turtle.

She ate from my hand, timidly at first, and then with confidence. She grew quickly. The 10-gallon tank gave way to a 20, then a 30, then a 40, and then a 55. She watched me while I did my homework, and at night I heard her swimming fast through the water and bumping hard against the glass walls. I always rationalized the husbandry of exotic pets by taking better care of them than nature would, but in her case I knew I could not do so. When she was a bit larger than a salad plate, I learned that a program at the New York Aquarium at Coney Island was underway to save her kind. One Saturday morning I took the subway to the end of the line with her in my backpack. Heavy of heart but somehow simultaneously elated, I donated her to the program, after first receiving assurances that she would soon be set free to swim with her kind.

That little turtle was a Kemp's Ridley, and up until a month ago, she might still have been alive. Now, however, as BP oil coats the Gulf of Mexico--the only place in the world where the species lives--I doubt there is much chance of that. The program to save the species, recently quite successful, is now in doubt, as its nesting beaches will likely be fouled, its food sources, mostly crabs, may be extinguished, and the turtles themselves will likely and fatally swallow oil when they come to the surface to breathe.

Biologists in the know look at amphibians like salamanders and frogs as sentinel species. When they disappear, trouble is likely close behind. For me, the measure of the state of our natural world has always been turtles. Whether it is the war in Bosnia suddenly flooding the pet trade with European tortoises (what a bounty for orphans, a few dollars for a little turtle they can just stick in their pocket and sell), starvation in Africa, the dictates of Chinese folk medicine, environmental devastation in Madagascar, religious conflicts in Indonesia, or bloodshed in Southeast Asia, shy, slow, helpless turtles are always among the first victims.

Turtles have few advocates and even fewer active defenders. There are no whale wars for turtles, no videographers documenting their fate. In fact, at least one gambling website is now offering odds on whether the Kemp's Ridley will be the first extinction casualty of the Gulf oil spill.

There are a few species survival plans in place in zoos, and there are a few dedicated individuals working to save turtles worldwide. I encourage you to search the out and support them. Back when I rescued that little turtle from a pet shop, I had no idea the planet was a mere forty years from turtle Armageddon.