A story of superstition and a sea turtle named Piggy Bank
What can you say about a 25-year-old female who died? That she lived near the Gulf of Thailand in a small province called Chon Buri. That she had a life expectancy of another 50 years or so. That she weighed 130 pounds and was a really good swimmer — especially in the pond she knew as home. That she seemed to have an inordinate love of money — so much so that those who knew her nicknamed her “Piggy Bank.” That her death, in March 2017, was predictable and preventable.
Piggy Bank, you see, was a green sea turtle, a member of an endangered species. Sea turtles, by the way, are featured on the logo for the 2020 Rotary International Convention in Honolulu. And what fascinating creatures they are.
“Sea turtles travel far and wide, riding currents across the open ocean,” reads a description on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s website. “Females return to the same beach each year, using magnetic clues as a map back home.” Mother turtles lay their eggs on the beach, then cover them with a sandy quilt before returning to the sea. After hatching a couple of months later, the newborns dash to the water to escape being eaten by predators.
Unlike their kin found in rivers and creeks, sea turtles cannot retract their limbs into their shells. Over the millennia, sea turtles’ forelegs developed into “flipper-shaped blades, which help them ‘fly’ through the water” at speeds of up to 15 knots, or about 17 miles per hour, as they use their hind legs as rudders. In lieu of teeth, sea turtles have sharp beaks to help tear apart their food, which they wash down with sea water, using special glands near their eyes to desalinize it. This process makes them appear to be crying.
This seems apt. The natural habitat of sea turtles — and, thus, their very survival on the planet — is in peril. Among the threats are pollution, poachers, and residential and commercial development along the shorelines where the turtles nest. These creatures are often also accidentally caught by fishermen, although the fishing industry has developed some nets with “trap doors” to allow turtles to escape.
Scientists believe that, as oceans warm and sea levels rise, the basic tasks of finding food, mating, and nesting will become increasingly difficult for sea turtles. One problem is that females are born from eggs that are warmer; males result from cooler eggs. Ponder what this could bode for the species’ future on a warming globe.
Regrettably, sea turtles cannot distinguish between what is digestible and what is not. This was Piggy Bank’s downfall — coupled with the penchant of her human admirers for practicing a common superstitious ritual.
This turtle was given her nickname (“Omsin” in Thai) because people — human beings, we — knew that when coins were thrown into the pond, Piggy Bank would swim to them. And eat them. Or swallow them whole, rather. And she did that over and over. How could the humans — how could we — not have seen what was bound to come of this?
What can you say about people who throw money into bodies of water?
In Thailand, turtles are a symbol of longevity. Somehow related to this archetypal concept is a superstition: “If you throw coins into waters where turtles swim, you’ll live longer.”
Throwing coins into water for what you could call selfish reasons (such as making a wish) goes beyond Thailand and its customs. The practice started in ancient times, when water was often undrinkable. When potable water could be found, it was deemed a gift from the gods. People figured those gods would appreciate a little something in return. So they would toss a little money into the fountain, spring, or well.
When tossing in a coin, a person might say a little prayer, ask for something, make a wish. In 1876 when British archaeologist John Clayton excavated Coventina’s Well — a spring in a basin that was about 2.5 meters square, in England’s Northumberland County — 16,000 Roman coins were recovered. I cannot but wonder how many of the people who contributed to that cache felt lucky after their tosses. Or believed that their wishes had been granted.
In early 2017, folks began to notice that Piggy Bank was having difficulty swimming. National Public Radio reported that her shell had cracked. That couldn’t be good. Rescuers got her to a team of veterinarians. During seven hours of surgery, 915 coins, foreign and domestic, were removed from the swimmer’s stomach. Piggy Bank’s condition and recovery were chronicled on social media. Shortly after the operation, the patient was said to be stronger, brighter, happier.
But a few days later, Piggy Bank took a turn for the worse. One report cited a “gaping space” where the coins had been. The total weight of these coins was 11 pounds. As for the space they filled, imagine a roll of quarters containing 40 coins — it’s about an inch in diameter and about 2 3/4 inches long. Now, imagine 22 rolls and visualize the space required by such a collection. Piggy Bank’s intestines got tangled up in the void created by the removal of this small fortune. The result was an infection. The infection was made worse by the toxicity from the old coins. Piggy Bank became depressed and irritable, a bad sign. She was obviously in a great deal of pain and distress. Rushed to intensive care on 19 March 2017, she slipped into a coma and died.
Something about this story resonates in my soul. Or perhaps in my psyche. OK, in my brain, then. The symbolism, the pure metaphor of it all, simply cannot be overstated. Forget about The Lobster, the 2015 dystopian movie in which humans who cannot find mates are turned into the animals of their choosing. We are the green sea turtles. The green sea turtles are us. I am Piggy Bank!
In fairy tales, mythology, and dreams, money often symbolizes energy, power, prestige. How odd it is that, even in small doses, we humans regularly deploy it in such a way that it does us no good. And does others harm.
I frequently pass by a multitiered fountain at one of the landmarks in my city. It’s always cluttered with pennies, along with a few nickels, dimes, and quarters. This fountain probably attracts as many visitors as Coventina did in its heyday. Each time I’m there, it occurs to me that I ought to reread the littering statute. I’m fairly certain that there’s no exception for money thrown into public waters.
Tongue in cheek, I brought that up one day in conversation with a person of authority at this establishment. Her response included a smile and an eye-roll. I dare not repeat her full reply. Suffice it to say that it is someone’s job to clean out that money regularly.
Oh, well. At least there are no turtles in this fountain.
• Victor Fleming, a member of the Rotary Club of Little Rock, Arkansas, is a district court judge and, since 2006, the author of this magazine’s crossword puzzle.
• This story originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.