Vet Talk

The Great (Tortoise) Escape

They found a tunnel under the tortoise house

May 30, 2017 (published)

Sulcata tortoise Wikimedia

Photo courtesy of John5199 at Wikimedia Commons.

Walter likes to go walkabout. My mother still recounts with horror the time he entered the house through the kitchen door. “There was this horrible smell and I looked up from my puzzle and the coffee table was walking away!”

It should be noted at this point that Walter is a 150-pound sulcata tortoise belonging to my sister and brother-in-law. When they lived in Southern California, Walter’s favorite outings involved breaking down the back fence (he pulls his head inside and uses his shell as a battering ram) and touring the neighborhood. “Your tortoise is out in front of my house” was a common phone call until my brother-in-law reinforced the back yard with concrete blocks.

My parents, my sister and her hubby, along with the family's two standard poodles, and, of course, Walter, have all migrated north and are living out what is likely to become a sitcom plot on a large property in the Puget Sound.

When I called to wish Mom a happy Mothers’ Day, I got the latest version of The Daring Tortoise Escape.

Since the Pacific Northwest isn’t exactly desert climate, my dad and brother-in-law’s first home improvement collaboration was the construction of the “Tortoisearium.” Walter now has his own heated house and heavily fenced exercise yard.

Apparently that isn’t sufficient to meet the needs of His Chelonian Highness, at least not on a sunny day.

Last week, while the humans and poodles hiked down to the beach, Walter apparently decided he needed his own adventure. Maybe he heard waves crashing. Maybe he wanted to rescue Dory or Nemo. Maybe he wanted to change careers from desert to sea turtle. Who knows what goes on in Walter's mind?

They returned home to find a tunnel under the tortoise house, leading to the open lawn and no tortoise in sight. (Note: Apparently, if you read The Count of Monte Cristo or Escape from Alcatraz to your pets, they take notes!) Sulcatas are known for tunneling elaborate burrows to escape from climate extremes.

Knowing Walter has a fondness for downhill travel, they started the search at the edge of the lawn where it meets a cliff that drops into the pre-beach wilderness. There the trackers found signs that the fugitive had tried and backtracked several routes before choosing one and also indications that he had, in places, tucked inside his shell and tobogganed down.

After a nearly two-hour search in which the fugitive would stop moving and go quiet whenever called, they found Walter in a ravine a few yards from the high-tide beach.

How do you rescue a tortoise the size of a low table? By putting him in a large plastic container (the kind used for mixing cement) and hauling him up the beach stairs.

Walter has been sentenced to house-arrest in his tortoise house and has only supervised exercise until appropriate modifications can be made to the Tortoisearium.

As much trouble as Walter causes, he has the right owners to deal with his shenanigans. Even though he was small and harmless looking when they acquired him, my sister and brother-in-law had done their homework and knew what they were getting into. I think my brother-in-law secretly enjoys the architectural battle of wits with his tortoise, and I'm not sure yet who's winning.

My mom forgot the tortoise factor when they all agreed to buy a property together; there is still some debate as to who will eventually have to inherit Walter, as tortoises outlive most humans. Walter is about 15 years old. At approximately 150 pounds, he is still only 3/4 of his adult size. He takes as long as a human to arrive at his adult size.

This BuzzFeed article does a great job of pointing out the myths around tortoises. The zoo is far from likely to take your tortoise when it gets big because they all already have too many. Plus there's the heartbreak of abandoned and relinquished tortoises in the U.S.

Unfortunately it’s all too common for folks selling animals to say the things people buying animals want to hear, and many of those things just aren’t true. Your tortoise won’t stay small if you keep him in a small tank. Your teacup pig won’t stay tiny. Your goat can’t eat anything.  Miniature horses don't make great apartment pets because they are still HORSES and they are the size of an incredibly large dog. Plus, sometimes we have trouble seeing the realities of that animal's adulthood because we can't see beyond that adorable baby face.

In a nutshell (tortoiseshell?), when you're looking to take in any kind of animal - tortoise, dog, pig, parrot, jaguar, snake - and the person selling it tells you it’s an easy keeper or it won't get as big as people say if you merely do X, think three times before you buy their story or the pet. The more you know about a prospective pet, the happier you will both be.

1 Comment

June 2, 2017

I have been rehabbing tortoises for 22 yrs. now and my main peeve is the lack of correct care owners have about their tortoise breed. Most of them die too soon, from gout, fatty livers and impactions. I do necropsies too.

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