Brian O'Neill: Kids, let these tortoises be your role model


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As soon as I heard that a couple of Galapagos tortoises would be spending their summer in Pittsburgh, I ambled like the wind to the Pittsburgh Zoo.

'Twas a beautiful Friday morning and the zoo was crawling with schoolchildren. I walked past the Siberian tigers lolling in the sun and the African lions doing the same. (Old Pittsburghers, these cats know that snatches of God's blessed warmth must be savored, because you may not see their like for days.)

I wasn't interested in the felines. Tortoises are just my speed.

Zoo introduces a pair of Galapagos tortoises

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium today introduced its newest residents -- a pair of 20-year-old Gal??pagos tortoises. These creatures often reach 100 years in age. (Video by Nate Guidry; 5/22/2014)

Start slow -- taper off. That's my motto, and these two tortoises are now the poster children for that lifestyle choice.

A swarm of kids was already at the fence eyeing the reptiles when I arrived. A quartet of boys who looked like they'd just recessed from a Norman Rockwell painting waited for something, anything, to happen.

"Does he have a head?" one asked after a while.

"I'm sure he does,'' replied a woman with a name tag, flaunting her zoological acumen.

The tortoise -- a she, I was later told -- did indeed have a head, but it couldn't be seen by the little ones because it was right up against the wooden board at the base of the fence. The board was put there so these reptilian tanks could not push through and make a long, slow break for the parking lot.

I arrived at 11:11 a.m. Around 11:14 a.m., the smaller tortoise raised her head slightly. The crowd loved it. That is what they came to see.

(Old joke: A snail gets mugged by two tortoises. Cop asks the snail what they looked like. Snail says, "I don't know. It all happened so fast.")

Talk all you like about a recipe for fitness. You can jog, do yoga, avoid sugar and fried foods and get your requisite glass of wine and belly laugh each day. You still won't outlive these tortoises.

They're 22 and just becoming sexually mature. Odds are good my great-grandchildren will be able to see them if these loaners from an Allentown zoo are still in Pittsburgh 80 years hence. That prediction comes straight from Ken Kaemmerer, the zoo's curator of mammals, who also looks after the odd cold-blooded animal.

Mr. Kaemmerer told me of Harriett, a tortoise who died in Australia in 2006. Harriett was said to have been collected by Charles Darwin on his trip to the Galapagos Islands in 1835, so her estimated age at death was 175. There's some dispute about that, but there's no disputing tortoises can live more than a century.

As I watched them, they began to explore their new digs. It took them minutes to cross the enclosure; they moved at about the pace of zombies in a George Romero movie, but with far more personality. Mostly, though, they just chewed grass.

These "reptilian cows'' should have all the grass in the enclosure eaten down to a nub by summer's end, Mr. Kaemmerer said, and that's not all they get. They get a kind of tortoise chow, hay, and they're enticed into their little warm huts at night by someone waving a banana or lettuce leaf in front of them and goosing them from behind.

They must have liked that. By the third night, Mr. Kaemmerer said, they were going into their huts on their own.

The female weighs 122 pounds and the male 166, but they'll never stop growing. With zookeepers watching over them -- "if there are sniffles, we're treating it'' -- they should one day grow as large as 6 feet long and 800 pounds.

It hardly seems a bad life, even with the paparazzi at the fence. Those two things I try so hard to avoid in my off hours -- thought and effort -- were nowhere to be found in this 50-foot-by-35-foot enclosure, even as these two were in the middle of their workday. With a pool, snacks and no worries like trying to fund a 401(k) to take care of their next century, it's no wonder they live so long.

I found myself envying them as I headed for the exit. I half-considered taking a look at the Hoffman's Two-Toed Sloth as well before I left, but maybe next time. That was quite enough excitement for one day.

Old riddle: What does a snail say when he rides on a tortoise's back? Answer: "Weeeeeeee!!!!!!"

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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