Today we went to visit the Mote Marine Research Facility in Sarasota which has an sea animal rescue center and a modest size aquarium. They rehabilitate a lot of sea turtles which come ashore during the summer to lay their eggs. They have some young turtles in he exhibit (35 years old) and they think sea turtles can live to be 90 years old with the ability to reproduce for their entire lives. They believe some of the egg laying turtles are in their seventies, but they do not know how old they are because wild turtles do not visibly age between maturity (age 30, when they can reproduce) and death. They get scars, but they do not go grey, fade, slow down, or show other visible signs of aging.
I find this fascinating. I have heard this about other wild animals as well. They may show signs of illness, but what we think of as aging in ourselves and in our pets is not necessarily normal in wild animals.
Elsewhere in Sarasota, is Sarasota Jungle Gardens. They have a bird show and when we last went there we saw a few different cockatoos doing tricks. The best trick is a cockatoo who rides a unicycle on a high wire. She doesn’t look any different than the other birds and she does this trick for two or three shows daily. She has been doing it for a long time. She has even been on television…on The Ed Sullivan Show. The bird is seventy-six years old and she is still performing on a unicycle every day.
There are many cases like these. There is Snooty the Manatee who may no longer be with us but was sixty-five last time I checked and again, looked and acted no different than a manatee half his age. I have heard that Cheetah, the chimpanzee who worked with Ronald Reagan as an actor, was retired and in his seventies, and still as dangerous as ever.
Which makes me wonder, what if aging is not normal at all. What if animals are not really supposed to visibly age. What if we are not supposed to visibly age. What if what we call aging is actually inflammation, no exercise and a crummy diet.
I know that sticking to a healthier diet is challenging. I have days when I find myself eating way too much sugar or having a third glass of wine. It took me years to give up my bad habits (I used to have hot wings, pizza and diet cola for dinner every Monday night), and get more exercise. And I am not perfect.
But I am convinced that the very things that are killing most people are preventable with proper diet and exercise, and that the things we consider normal aging are signs of a life out of balance.
I know that being gluten-free and having to prepare virtually all of your meals fresh from ingredients and needing to avoid grains because of cross contamination can seem like a huge hassle. This condition forces me to eat a whole foods, plant based diet. I carry clementines and bananas for snacks. I never consume dairy. When I do eat out I am almost always ordering the salad so that I don’t make myself sick.
This is a hassle, it is not how most people live, and it can feel strange. Yet I have a feeling that there is a payoff to eating this way and living this way. There is an odd gift in this illness and that gift is that it makes eating the right way easier. Because the most convenient thing to eat is a salad or a piece of fruit, I eat a lot of fruit and salad.
And I have a funny feeling that is going to pay off in more ways than one.