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Sheila Stoll: What I learned from the tortoise

Behold the lowly, persistent tortoise, a successful species since dinosaurs roamed the planet. They have withstood pretty much everything Mother Nature has thrown at them, including us.

By our standards they are not beautiful. They live in burrows, are scaly, carry around their own private fortress, have beady eyes and parrotlike beaks.

Make no mistake, tortoises are not turtles. They don't spend time lining up on logs to sun and then plop into water when disturbed. They are land-dwelling beasts, cumbersome, ungraceful and solitary, for the most part. They can live to be very old.

They shared my little piece of mosquito-infested, occasionally flooded, snake-inhabited, squirrelly and wild piece of forested Florida years ago. Mosquitoes didn't even try to feast on tortoises. Snakes ignored them, lizards raced past them, they didn't mind the heat and they seemed to enjoy their own company most of the time.

I watched the tortoises and learned. Giganticus was a very large and probably very old tortoise. His shell had a huge crack on one side, evidence of some long-ago encounter with a vehicle or falling tree limb. His very large burrow had a mighty mound of excavated sand around the opening. Nearby was a little poke-hole occupied by a skittering little tortoise I called Buttercup. She was bright yellow and very vulnerable. There were well-marked paths in an open meadow that led to patches of prickly pear cactus, which they munched up as if cactus thorns were just part of the succulent delight of the pads.

Patton lived in the woods in a burrow partly obscured by a fallen limb. He marched forth at about noon every day, purposefully making his way through the brush to some tough old vines that he particularly enjoyed for his midday meal.

Once I saw him march forth and not even pause at the vines. He had a date. I followed him for nearly a quarter of a mile to another area with several burrows in evidence.

The sex life of tortoises appears to be very difficult. Those shells make coupling a real challenge. Patton only made one such trip that spring to my knowledge. It's the only time I ever saw his ''friend" Petunia. I always hoped that meeting produced a Buttercup or two.

Down the road about two-thirds of a mile was a farm inhabited by an extended family that included a number of dogs. I'm not anti-dog, but one day I came home from town to discover the neighbor's big red chow relaxing in the meadow, waiting. He had come over in the midday sun, watched and then turned over the tortoises as they emerged from their burrows.

The tortoises couldn't right themselves, so they tucked in their heads and feet . . . and roasted. The chow watched, waiting for the tortoises to tire and let their limbs hang out. The dog didn't need a meal of tortoise legs, he just enjoyed the game and a little potential chewing pleasure. That's when I got my gun. It was a small rifle loaded with bird shot. I filled that dog's backside with bird shot and turned the tortoises back on their front sides.

It's the only time in my life I ever shot at anything living. The red chow didn't come back.

Tortoises are protected in Florida. You're supposed to avoid running them over or bothering them in general. This is hard for people who build their homes in a place where tortoises live.

For some reason, folks don't like to have a big old tortoise — or 10 — building and rebuilding their burrows in the newly sodded back yard. But, in general, the tortoises were there first and they are, even more than old people, creatures of habit. Did you know that they build burrows up to 30 feet long?

I have never understood the apparent delight some drivers of jacked-up pickups take in running over one of these beasts trying to cross the road, probably to keep a date with his own lovely Petunia.

Why do I admire these throwbacks to the reptilian age? Perhaps they remind me of my crusty old self. My "shell" is a little cracked, too. I've figured out how to survive, dug my burrow (more than one), and I'm no longer bright yellow or as vulnerable as I was years ago.

My dry old skin is a little scaly. I've learned that crossing the road can be very dangerous and that there are those who do not wish me well although I've never harmed them. Apparently I'm just in their way or am an unsightly blot on the verdant lawn of their lives. My little patch of cactus doesn't suit their lifestyle, in spite of my need to eat.

I would not make a good pet. I'm old and I'm really tired of the red chows in my life.

Write to Sheila Stoll in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

Sheila Stoll: What I learned from the tortoise 04/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 27, 2009 4:30am]
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