|The short focal-length iPhone camera exaggerates his size a bit.|
Then she looked for herself. And there really was a tortoise, marching determinedly eastward up from the shallow gully between us and the county road, past the greenhouse, and on toward the steep ridge behind the house.
A neighbor's dog had been barking across the road, a steady woof-woof-woof-woof that I had thought maybe meant it saw a deer, but there were too many trees in the way to tell. Obviously the tortoise had passed that house too.
I knew we had to do something. It was heading into an environment where it might survive for a time, but not permanently. There are no native land tortoises in southern Colorado — the winters are too cold.
Furthermore, its appearance was a mystery. We have lived 27 years in this rural subdivision. We never heard of a neighbor who had a large tortoise. There are some relatively new people who think that they can pasture four or five horses on five unirrigated acres, which is why M. calls the guy Mr. Dust Bowl. It had come from that direction, but was that a clue or just coincidence?
Since the tortoise was heading right for our driveway, it was an easy matter to catch it and put it into the large dog crate. (Its shell was too big for the medium-size crate.)
At the thought that the tortoise might have escaped from Mr. Dust Bowl, M. went into full Underground Railroad mode: "We are not taking it back there!"
We called our friends the wildlife rehabilitators. They deal almost exclusively with mammals, not ectothermic tetrapods, but they had a large gravel-floored enclosure that had just been cleaned after its former inhabitants, two young mountain lions, had been released.
"Bring it over!" was their response.
Not being herpetologists, we were all doing some quick research. Hmmm, it appears to be an African spurred tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata), native to the Sahel. (Bred for the pet trade, I suppose.) In the wild their status is "vulnerable," which means the Chinese have not incorporated them into some kind of virility potion and wiped out the whole population, at least not yet.
Could it have been abandoned, the way people dump dogs and cats in the country? Sadly, that is possible, maybe probable. One article calls sulcata "America's most adorable mistake."
|At the wildlife rehabilitation center.|
But you’re bound to run into problems when you combine breeders who produce thousands of cartoonishly cute hatchlings a year; buyers who get the third-largest tortoise species on a whim without educating themselves; pet stores that sell the animals without warning buyers how big they’ll get or how to care for them; and wonderful, knowledgeable owners who nevertheless age out of being able to care for a heavy and long-lived pet. Sulcatas are nearly guaranteed to outlive their owners. Experts aren’t sure exactly how long they live in captivity, since the pet trade started only around half their lifespans ago, but educated guesses peg it at over 100 years.
With the tortoise temporarily housed, the center's director drove to town to buy fruits and vegetables for it — "him," we now believe.
M. and I went home and waited. No one had walked up the road calling, "Here, torty torty torty."
No signs appeared on telephone polls or at the post office two miles away, which serves as a community bulletin board.
And nothing appeared on any of the active county-wide Facebook groups, where people are always reporting lost dogs — or found dogs — or strayed horses, or whatever.
After a week, the rehabbers called someone they knew at the Denver Zoo, and today a carload of zoo herpetology volunteers showed up, including someone who is already caring for an African spurred tortoise.
They took "Sully," as the rehabbers had nicknamed him, away with a plan to find him a "forever home." I have no idea how that will all work out, but it is better than letting him wander the San Isabel National Forest looking for a non-existent mate, or whatever his tortoise brain was telling him to do.
Don't get me started on why people think that they have to possess these creatures.
A little pop-culture note: that was an African spurred tortoise in a certain famous scene in Breaking Bad. Here you can learn about the "making of." No tortoises were harmed.