… Tortoise Wrangling for beginners

Folks who read this blog regularly are starting to complain.

“It’s all, well and good hearing about you and your low level village idiocy. But we’re only putting up with you because we want to hear about Humphrey.”

We decided a while ago we wanted a pet.

Future-Mrs-Dr-Brown and I had a few criteria. Not too much effort. Not needing company because we both worked. Hypoallergenic. We wanted something a bit more interesting than a goldfish.

They say pets look like their owners, but unfortunately the day I went the pet shop had sold out of handsome greyhounds.

And so after much deliberation and research looking at non- shedding dog breeds, rabbits, parrots and even those horrible ugly bald cats, we became the proud owner of Humphrey, a baby Mediterranean tortoise.

In those days you weren’t allowed to import tortoises so we needed documentation that he was captive bred. The certificate explains he’s a Herman’s Mediterranean Tortoise, origins from Slovenia (should he ever appear on “Who Do You Think You Are?” on the BBC), but , glamorously, born in Croydon, one time home of Kate Moss, Amy Winehouse and seemingly a baby tortoise. I like to think they met.

Contrary to the usual order, we didn’t get a pet for the kids. Given the life expectancy of overweight males from Northern Ireland (the proud cardiovascular disease capital of Europe) versus the Mediterranean tortoise, we needed kids for the pet.

My family doesn’t have much of a track record with pets. When I was a kid my brother wanted to name his two goldfish Morecambe and Wise after the comedians, but changed his mind in case Morecambe died first and he had to say in French lessons “I have one goldfish. He is called Wise.” and have to explain that to his class.*

*Note: Being a couple of years older, my answer in my GCSE exam was along the lines of “Je n’ais pas un pet, parce-que mon father n’aime pas les animaux, et il thinks les animaux sont smelly.”

My daughter is already tired of explaining “Moi? J’ai deux poissons rougue, soixante mille abeilles et un tortue.” (Two goldfish, 60,000 bees and a tortoise) so has made up a cat. She is called Smokey. She is black. She is three years old. Most importantly, she is easier to spell.

But it’s not all chasing sticks and running after balls. Tortoise owning has periods of jeopardy, even peril, as well. 

Folks – I give you “waking your tortoise from hibernation.”

Now, some of you may remember having a new baby and waking in the night with a start and checking they’re still breathing.

Well, this is worse. 

Imagine popping your baby in the fridge for three months, not being allowed to check for fear of it collapsing like a souffle, and then the fear of bringing him out and waiting for him to start to move.

It’s not as if you can walk past and hear tapping and a small voice saying “Hello?… Hello?… It’s very dark in here!… Is it spring? Can I come out?” and know all is well.

Some of you will be empathetic, sharing the relief when he pops his head out of his shell and we know all is well.

Others will still be stuck on the word “fridge”.

We do hibernate Humph in the fridge.  Constant temperature of about three degrees.  Not so variable as he wakes and sleeps intermittently which knackers his kidneys, and not so cold as a long freeze which (if he’s in a shed or garage) can cause his blood to freeze solid which makes him go a little bit… what’s the word?… dead!

So we’re left with this annual dance with Schrodinger’s tortoise.  Not knowing if he’s alive or dead until we open the box.

The closest many of you will have come to this level of tortoise-based excitement is when they woke up George the Blue Peter tortoise when we were kids.  And the secret for that was that they had a bag of spares down the back of the sofa just in case they open the box and find he’s died in his sleep and they need a body double (or famously for the one year when George was in rehab because showbusiness had gotten too much for him; but they kept that hushed up until now).

Yes, it’s a high octane life living with a tortoise. But for pure terror nothing quite beats the moment when we took him out for a walk in the garden, lost our concentration for six or seven short hours and turned round to find him…



Note the forward-facing eyes of the apex predator

5 thoughts on “… Tortoise Wrangling for beginners

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