The night Shady got lost, eight-year-old Robbie Penna cried himself to sleep in his mother’s arms. Shady was his pet box turtle, and for almost two years he’d lived in Robbie’s room in a glass aquarium lined with wood chips. Shady would bang his shell against the glass every morning. He was like an alarm clock, Robbie joked, because he seemed to know exactly when Robbie needed to wake up.
Shady weighed two or three pounds, and the top of his greenish brown shell was five or six inches off the ground. He had red eyes and a long, snakelike neck, and if you touched him or picked him up abruptly he would hiss.
Robbie first laid eyes on Shady, then called Lumpy, in August 2002 at the Chicago Aquarium & Pond Company in Andersonville, where he was shopping for fish with his older brother, Ryan, and his mother, Laurie. He asked, then begged, his mother for the turtle.
Robbie’s father, Rik, didn’t much like having pets around, and the family already had a cat, but Laurie too was smitten. “He was really cool and prehistoric looking,” she says. She bought him for Robbie for $20. “My husband was pissed. He threatened to cook him.”
The shop owner told them that the turtle was vegetarian, so they fed Lumpy a steady diet of strawberries, kiwis, bananas, and greens. Laurie also put wheatgrass in the tank so he’d have contact with live plants. When she saw him rubbing his head in the wheatgrass she felt bad about confining him to an aquarium, though Robbie sometimes let him explore the bedroom.
They started taking Lumpy outside. “It was a green, sunny August,” Laurie recalls. “We just wanted him to be happy.” Robbie noticed that the turtle would hide in the shade under leafy plants and porches, so he renamed him Shady.
One day Shady disappeared from the dishpan they’d put on a table on the back porch. A frantic search of the yard turned up nothing. The next morning Laurie, Robbie, and Ryan were outside crying as they called Shady’s name. “We were calling a turtle,” says Laurie. “How stupid is that?”
Suddenly a woman appeared holding Shady, saying she’d found him in the middle of the alley. The Pennas had no idea how he’d made it through the back fence.
After that the family kept a close eye on Shady when he was in the yard. “People think turtles are slow, but they’re not,” says Laurie. “He was really active and really quick.” Shady surprised the Pennas by hunting night crawlers, and they started giving him a couple of bait-shop worms every day to supplement his diet.
Not long after Shady’s break for the alley Rik came up with the idea of attaching a piece of string to his shell with duct tape and tying him to a railing. “He did really well with that for a while,” Laurie says. But then he broke loose, pulling off a tiny piece of his shell. He wandered away but got only as far as the neighbor’s yard before Rik found him.
The Pennas started to think that maybe Shady should be set free. Laurie called a nature center and asked about releasing him in a forest preserve. But by then it was fall, and the experts said she’d have to fatten him up with about 12 night crawlers a day if he was going to stand a chance of surviving on his own.
Shady’s first outing of 2004 was a couple of weeks ago, when the temperature was in the 70s. He planted himself under some bushes in the front yard while Laurie cleaned up a flower bed. Around 12:30 she left for an open house–she’s a real estate agent–and forgot to take Shady inside. When she returned at 3:30 he was gone.
Ryan was furious. Robbie was heartbroken. They and about ten neighborhood children looked for Shady for the rest of the afternoon. By nightfall it was pouring rain, and the Pennas gave flashlights and raincoats to the children who wanted to keep looking.
The next day Laurie stapled “Lost Turtle” flyers to trees around the neighborhood and scoured the streets and alleys again, looking under car tires and dropping strawberries in the bushes where she’d last seen Shady. Neighbors looked under their porches, and after school the children came out in force again.
That Wednesday, Robbie failed a spelling test he hadn’t studied for. He also got in trouble for whipping a pencil across the classroom. Laurie wrote a letter to his third-grade teacher explaining that he was having a rough time.
Laurie hopes Shady simply burrowed under someone’s porch and will come out when it gets warm again. But she worries that he smelled the lake and headed east across Broadway and Sheridan, which she knows could mean “dead Shady.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.