Grieving for the turtles and their keepers

When my brother was about five years old, I gave him a carved onyx turtle for his birthday. I still have a snapshot of his ear-to-ear grin as he clutched his palm-sized prize. He was so innocently oblivious of the war then raging across the American fabric and the death toll in Vietnam.

Turtles became a tradition, and I’ve spent the 40 years since then trying to come up with new and different turtle gifts for him.

This year, my brother got some real turtles for his birthday — a whole bunch of California tortoises that he is helping track and watch over as they are relocated in the Mojave desert somewhere outside of Barstow, California.

A few weeks into the job, he had a couple days off and came to visit me in Las Vegas, where he talked about his hard-shell charges. He and the other trackers are using some high-tech gizmos to monitor the tortoises, and, baby geek that I am, I wanted to know all about the technology from my geekie brother.

But what Kevin really wanted to talk to me about were the tortoises’ personalities. Tracking them around the clock, he’d come to know them as individuals, each with recognizable differences and quirks.

One was stubborn, another very friendly. Some were fraidy cats, pulling into their shells with a hissing noise at the slightest provocation. Yet another was unafraid and openly curious about the nearby humans.

He told me about one who really seemed to want to go back where she came from, and who finally disappeared off in that general direction.

But the one who really impressed him was an intrepid mountain climber — no hill was too steep or unsurmountable, he said, gesturing with his arms to imitate the old boy’s awkward but steady clambering.

So when Kevin e-mailed me that the tortoises’ story had made the big-time — well, the Los Angeles Times — I stopped what I was doing and played the video and found the story.

I read to the last word, and then I cried. His mountain-climbing tortoise friend is dead, likely killed by a coyote, he told the LA Times reporter.

There was another translocated tortoise I’d really gotten to like, even admire,” Lucas said. “He was a tremendous mountain climber with a can-do personality.

“The last time I saw him, he was on a steep slope in howling winds and something didn’t look right,” he recalled. “Through binoculars, I saw that his head and legs were missing. A deep sadness came over me.”

The tortoise was one of at least 28 who have been killed by coyotes desperate from the drought, according to the LATimes report and an earlier account in the Riverside Press Enterprise.

Some are now blaming the coyotes and they are proposing that decoy dogs be used to lure the coyotes in from the desert to shoot and kill them so they don’t kill any more tortoises.

It’s tragic that the tortoises, on the edge of extinction, had to move to begin with. But they couldn’t stay, because the Army needs their former habitat to expand operations at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin.

Training for war.

My mind is filled with sadness, and the words and melody of an anti-war song that was popular the year I gave Kevin his first turtle: “When will they ever learn?”