It originally occurred to me that I could possibly help out a tortoise while I was scouring craigslist for a larger enclosure for my Redfoot Tortoise, Darwin. He'd been living with me for long enough that we'd worked out the particulars of our arrangement, and had moved beyond survival to thriving. While combing the listings for enclosures I could both use for my torts and fit in the back of my car, I came across a listing for a Russian Tortoise from a guy who couldn't keep his any longer, and was looking to get rid of his Russian quickly.
Chili (formerly Ivan) had lived for years under rough conditions: in a 10-gallon storage tote, under a red heat lamp 24 hours a day, eating a diet of mostly romaine lettuce. Knowing what I had read about Russian Tortoise, this all broke my heart. I made arrangements to pick up the tortoise the next day (the guy left him outside of his apartment, in the tote, for me to grab).
Tortoises are incredibly tough creatures, which is why Chili's condition broke my heart. His beak was ridiculously overgrown, as were his claws, both from a long-term lack of use. For the first week he lived with me, he stayed hidden and didn't eat a thing... tortoises also don't like change. When he did start to come out of his shell, literally, he fell in love with hibiscus flowers and the fresh weeds I harvested from my lawn, crunching noisily at them all whenever I was in my office.
The first time I got him outside in the enclosure I'd built for him, he actually began jogging (slow) laps around the perimeter, exploring and nibbling and crunching his way through the leaves of maple branches I'd thrown in for enrichment. I got him outside every chance I could through the summer and the fall, and he'll be the first tort outside in the spring (Russians are hardier than my other torts, as regards NH weather).
Chili seems to be happy and healthy, and is gearing up (as the year winds down) for a few months of brumation (the reptile version of hibernation).
Shortly after Chili came to live with us, I fell in love with the idea of living with, and learning from, multiple torts... the ones that live with me all come from different parts of the world and have very different habits and backgrounds and designs and needs and personalities. I invited another kind of tortoise, an Asian Forest Tortoise, native to Thailand, to come and live with us, and loved learning about her.
It was in looking for an enclosure big enough to suit Aretha (the new tortoise, who is tiny now, but will someday be the biggest in my creep, which is what a group of tortoises is called) that I came across a post, on craigslist again, about a tortoise in need of a home.
The Hingeback Tortoise (an African species) who would eventually come to be called Nelson had been living with a young woman who purchased him at a reptile expo the year before, but hadn't been able to provide for his needs adequately... he was living in an open-topped enclosure that was both too small and too dry, she wasn't feeding him the proper foods to support his growth and health.
When I picked him up, I almost cried, almost backed away from the exchange/rescue... certain he was beyond my help. A healthy tortoise should feel dense and solid and heavy, like a mango or peach... Nelson felt more like a hamburger roll when I picked him up. He was seriously, dangerously, underweight due to dehydration. His variety of Hingeback (Kinixys homeana) live in African rainforests, and are often seen in rivers, hunting or just soaking; so for him to live in a too dry and too cold environment in New Hampshire had probably taken him to the limits of survivability.
I was entirely uncertain whether or not he would survive in my care, but was slightly more certain that he would perish in his prior circumstances. So I took him home with me, and began a course of twice-daily soaks in a slightly modified version of the UN's Oral Rehydration Therapy recipe.
- he felt more appropriately heavy when I picked him up
- his eyes, which had been puffy and rheumy on the day I brought him home became clear and bright
- he started pooping, then eating
- he began to explore his enclosure, instead of simply staying wherever I'd put him
- when I sat down to work at my desk, he'd notice me, and walk over to the closest point in his enclosure to watch me.
I don't know that he's out of the woods yet, but he's closer to the edge of them, no longer in the dark and frightening center.
The magic of tortoise rescue is that these incredible creatures are at once so tough and so fragile... they can survive horrific conditions for a long time, but once they've started to decline, it can be tough to bring them back, to alter the downward spiral. I have the time and patience and space and means to care for the tortoises in my creep adequately, and I love the feeling of helping another being turn a corner in their life.
Chili was pretty easy, he simply needed a bigger and better enclosure and the appropriate food. Nelson provided, and continues to provide, a bigger challenge, one I hope to meet successfully enough that in a few years I can help him become a part of a breeding collective for his flavor of hingeback, so that we can help rescue his species from their endangered status in their homeland (or at least help to create a genetically useful reservoir here in the US, against some possible reintroduction at some point in the future).
I live with four tortoises now, my creep is full (seriously, I love that word/term), I've hit the practical limits of my system, my house, my family in terms of keeping torts. I love that I've been able to bring a couple of rescues into my life, and my hope going forward is twofold:
- that someone (or multiple someones) reading this will carve out the space to help out a rescue tortoise, at a level of help they're able to give
- That I can help that someone (or someones) by giving them advice or more material support, in the form of shuttling a tort to a new home or helping out with the gear needed to support tortoises in an alien environment.