Dear Turtle,

If there’s anything I feel I might owe you an apology for, it’s your name, Scooter. When L. and I stumbled onto you, quite by accident, my mind was blank. All I could think of was the words “Magna Carta” being pronounced by Mr. Clausen, my high-school history teacher. L. said that Magna Carta was a stupid name for a turtle, and, because I didn’t want to seem disagreeable, I acquiesced. But I wonder sometimes if you would have been better off if I hadn’t.

It would bother me more if I thought you cared, but you don’t. You probably don’t even realize that Scooter is your name. I can tell by the way you act, swimming with all your might into the glass wall of your tank every time I turn on the light, that you don’t understand much. You live in a world of confusion. You are surrounded on all sides by transparent solids whose existence is entirely beyond your mental capabilities. When I drop food into your tank, you ignore it and stare at my finger, thinking it some delicious foodstuff hovering in the sky. When I take you out to play, you instantly dart away as fast as your tiny limbs can carry you, totally unaware that if you ever did actually escape from me, you would no doubt shortly die, forgotten, in some dusty corner of my room.

I wonder sometimes how I can justify my treatment of you. How I can feel so certain that I am doing what is best for you, even though every indication you have given has demonstrated that you want nothing to do with me; nor with your tiny new home, which is assaulted by the sound of Bob Dylan records at 3 a.m., records that must seem terrifying and supernatural to you; nor with your diet, which consists of nothing but dry pellets; nor with your total lack of companionship with your own kind? You were a baby, I tell myself. You probably would have starved, or frozen. Living in the wild is tough. I am providing you with a better life than the one you would have had, even if you don’t realize it. I repeat this to myself.

But what does this attitude really boil down to? How is it different from the ideals of politicians I despise who feel some need to protect us from ourselves? If, given a choice, you would crawl toward Freedom rather than Comfort (which I know you would, not even realizing what you were giving up), what right do I have to stop you?

There are arguments, justifications. I’ve been through them. These are the times when I am thankful that I took my undergraduate degree in philosophy, because it is clear that none of the arguments in favor of a paternalistic government rest on solid premises (see Robert Nozick’s classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia). I cannot argue that I am in any way “superior” to you; we are only different sorts of creatures.

So, in the end, I really can’t justify myself, but nor do I plan to release you. The guilt I feel at ignoring this ethical conundrum is greater than you could possibly imagine (keeping in mind that your wildest imaginings probably consist of nothing more than hitherto unknown combinations of pebbles and small fish). But I have tried. I have extended the twin hands of friendship and understanding, which is more than I can say for you. Do you remember the guppies I put in the tank so that you might have some company and feel more at home? You ate them. The snail? You ate that, too. Except for the shell. But I didn’t remove it. No, I left it in the tank as a perpetual monument to your unthinking brutality. Did you try in any way to show appreciation for the fact that I carefully stacked rocks in the corner so you would have a dry place to rest? Or did you push them all over without rhyme or reason while I was at work?

But I forgive you. It is not your fault, I remind myself; it is your nature. And this, I have come to realize, is the purest form of love. A love that requires nothing, that appreciates a being simply for being what it is, without thought of reward or reciprocation. I thank you for helping me find this almost Christlike compassion within myself, a love that gives all with the full knowledge that nothing, not even the simple cognition of my kind acts, is forthcoming. Because I realize, all too well, that should you one day become much larger, due to, say, some sort of “grow ray,” you would not hesitate to devour me.

Michael Liska III