In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a perfectly routine warning about a salmonella outbreak linked to pet turtles that included one perfectly unusual detail. “Don’t kiss or snuggle your turtle,” the CDC notice stressed, to the puzzled amusement of many. As the naturalist Sy Montgomery explains in her new book, “Of Time and Turtles: Mending the World, Shell by Shattered Shell,” the concern dates to the 1970s, when the United States banned “the sale of turtles less than four inches long, the width of a child’s open mouth.” These reptiles are so different from us that even healthy individuals “carry the Salmonella bacterium” on their bodies. Simultaneously, something about them fascinates, charms, entrances us. Don’t kiss or snuggle your turtle? Just try to stop me!

That two-step finds new life in an episode from Montgomery’s book set during the early pandemic. Montgomery had recently begun to volunteer with the Turtle Rescue League, a Massachusetts-based reptile-rehabilitation facility run by two women named Alexxia and Natasha. After some time away during the initial 2020 shutdowns, Montgomery and other volunteers, including the wildlife artist Matt Patterson (who contributes charming illustrations to the start of each chapter), returned to the organization’s headquarters, where they were met with a new set of rules and precautions. “As far as the tortoises go, I kiss Pizza Man – a lot,” Alexxia said of one of the creatures in the group’s collective care. “But in this point in time . . . the only persons allowed to kiss Pizza Man are me and Natasha.”

Montgomery spent much of the pandemic with Alexxia, Natasha and the rest of the TRL as they struggled to save and, if possible, rehabilitate and release hundreds of animals. Turtles are struck by cars as they try to make it from one pond to another, attacked by dogs as they trundle through the woods, baffled by warming weather as they build their nests, starved in tanks by oblivious humans as they struggle to survive in confinement. Over the course of the book, Montgomery and the other TRL volunteers rush to construction sites to move eggs laid in unstable soil and sweep beaches for stranded sea turtles. Above all else, though, Montgomery lingers with turtles as they heal, coming to know and love them – learning, in some cases, when it’s appropriate to cuddle and even kiss them.

Many of the turtles that reach Alexxia and Natasha don’t survive, even after heroic surgeries and meticulous care. Some of the book’s most heartbreaking scenes involve these moments of loss, including a devastating mass burial of 32 turtles. But even such moments of defeat underscore the importance of the work that Montgomery and the people she writes about are doing. “We lose a lot when we give up,” Natasha told Montgomery as they filled in the grave. “But turtles never give up. And we never give up on a turtle.”

Few writers are better than Montgomery at capturing the wonder of animals without taming them. She writes that the eyes of an Indochinese box turtle evoke “the polished stones you find in a clear stream, and carry with them a hint of a stone’s ancient patience.” Many of Montgomery’s best similes are like this, equating one natural thing to another in a way that suggests a filiating network of correspondences and connections that might ordinarily go unnoticed. But she is equally good at capturing the often transformative experience of human contact with animals, as she does when she describes her unadorned joy at watching an injured turtle relearn to walk with the help of a custom-made wheelchair. Or when she writes about a young TRL employee running into traffic, waving her hands to stop a truck from plowing into a group of snappers, ready “to scoop up the choiceless victims of human hubbub.”

On more than one occasion I had to put the book down because I was sobbing, sometimes simply because turtles are just that special. We learn, especially, about their resilience, such that some turtle species “can survive buried in mud for months without taking a breath.” They are remarkably good at healing, too: “They can regenerate nerve tissue, even sometimes when the spinal cord is actually cut in half,” Montgomery writes. But many of the book’s most surprising details involve their capacity for sociality. Montgomery notes that turtles are less silent than we typically imagine them to be: “Some species of Australian and South American river turtle nestlings communicate vocally with each other, and with their mothers, while still inside the egg,” and many of the animals at the TRL seem to develop complicated relationships with individual caretakers.


Above all else, Montgomery repeatedly returns to the longevity of these threatened and injured reptiles. She notes that Patterson has made provisions in his will for his pet spur-thigh tortoise, Eddie, who is expected to live a century and a half. Elsewhere, Montgomery, who is in her mid-60s, marvels that the feistily vivacious snapping turtle Fire Chief “is my age, or even older – and suddenly, surrounded by people so much younger than I am, I feel very proud that I have this in common with [him]: We are both old.” As Natasha tells Montgomery, “Time is what turtles have.”

Turtles have, of course, been analogues of time since at least the era of Aesop, steadily progressing, implacable, but here they are more than metaphors for individual perseverance. Throughout the book, Fire Chief, who was hit by a truck a few years before, recovers at the steady pace of the tortoise who beat the hare. Thanks to the Turtle Rescue League’s efforts, he might live decades longer. Such stories juxtapose strikingly with Montgomery’s earlier book “The Soul of an Octopus,” in which we learn that even the most intelligent cephalopods rarely live longer than a few years. There – especially in Montgomery’s deeply felt connection with a Pacific giant octopus that died during their time together – we see how transformative fleeting encounters can be. Here, by contrast, we watch a group of decent people struggling to preserve creatures that existed long before us and could outlive us all. In so doing, they – the turtles and their caretakers together – testify to the mere possibility of a future that sometimes feels as fragile as a hatchling’s growing shell.

Both experiences of time are critical to that project: We must recognize how quickly something precious might disappear, just as we must recall that solid, slow things can endure. That neither form of animal time – of the octopus or of the tortoise – truly pertains to us is why contemplating both can be so valuable. Only when we begin to see beyond our own species, beyond the frantically familiar pace of our immediate needs and concerns, can we begin to improve ourselves, to undo the damage we’ve done and ease the pain we daily cause. We often speak broadly of “saving the world,” as if there were some menace from elsewhere, when we know that we alone are the threat. And yet, as Montgomery shows, in time, even a turtle can consider a human with something like curiosity and maybe companionship. Perhaps in glimpsing ourselves through the eyes of our utmost others, we can find our way to a world that will survive us.

Like all of Montgomery’s work, then, “Of Time and Turtles” is a book that will make you want to be not a better human but a better animal. Hers is an oeuvre that encourages us to contemplate our continuity with other creatures, proving that our responsibility for their well-being is not some God-given, Adamic burden but a consequence of our culpability for damaging the world that they share with us, and we with them.

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