Meet the creature that defies convention

A tortoise flips the pet paradigm

My son Jake left Tonka, the first pet he has owned in his young adult life, in the car on the scolding July day and made sure to keep the windows up.

Tonka up close and personal.




Actually, none of the above. Tonka enjoys bathing in the heat of a 100-degree-plus enclosed car, but then he is no different than any other Sulcata tortoise, a pet that flips conventional wisdom on domesticated animals.

The Sulcata tortoise, also known as the African spurred tortoise, is a native of the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, a place where temperatures can soar to nearly 120 degrees. For Tonka, then, a steamy snooze in a parked sedan amounts to a toasty taste of home.

Consider the term “pet” itself. As a verb, the word means to stroke something in an affectionate manner, and this is one of the age-old attractions of owning a pet, especially a dog. But stroking a hard shell is a bit weird, and some in the tortoise community advise to limit such handling time to better ensure the health of the shell.

What truly separates the tortoise from traditional pets, however, is longevity, which is to say, your tortoise — given you provide good care — is most likely going to outlive you, possibly by a considerable number of years.

Tortoises have been known to live more than 150 years, and for the Sulcata, a lifespan of 70 years is typical and living well beyond that age is not uncommon.

For anybody who has experienced the loss of a beloved pet, this quality of the land turtle is bittersweet — sweet because you avoid the anguish of seeing your reptilian friend die and bitter because you have to worry about finding suitable care after you are gone.

Given that a Sulcata tortoise can grow to about 100 pounds, finding that suitable home can be a considerable challenge, all of which brings me back to Tonka, who, being still at the puppy stage, weighs in at about 2 pounds and a shell circumference roughly equivalent to a track and field discus.

Rondo and Tonka trade notes.

My longhaired miniature dachshund, Rondo, is obsessed with his cousin, who is visiting Maine for the first time, but will be traveling back to Louisiana -and its far more tortoise hospitable environment -shortly. The concern of what will become of Tonka in her elderly years is on the periphery for now, decades removed from any sense of urgency, and yet it’s hard not to compare Tonka with Rondo, who at 9 years old is beginning to gray at the whiskers and act in a more restrained, middle-age manner; yes, his mortality, is becoming more apparent by the day.

For Tonka, though, 9 years old will still be early childhood, if such a period exists for a tortoise, and looking forward to more than half a century of life. In a pet world dominated by dogs and cats, such longevity is hard to grasp and makes me wonder how it affects the tortoise. Will Tonka fall into a state of grief if she outlives Jake? And how does a loyal, loving land turtle move on from such a loss?

I likely will never learn the answers to these questions. The best I can do, unfortunately, is hope for the best and make sure I roll up the car windows for Tonka whenever the mercury runs high.

Writing is what I do. I started as a journalist, working at a daily newspaper in Maine for 20 years, and now I’m an English teacher, specializing in writing.

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