Sunday, November 13, 2005


Originally uploaded by tardigrade.

Ah, poor Ernestine. I have looked after her since 1987 when she was the size of a grapefruit. I think that leopard tortoises, Geochelone pardalis, are so beautiful. I bought Ernestine from a pet store whose owner adored tortoises, too. She introduced me to her vet who to this day still comes to look after the menagerie.

Ernestine in action... HERE

Leopard tortoises need to be warm in the sunlight and have access to water - they love to sit in both. When I moved to Ohio these requirements were difficult to adhere to but the house in Ohio had old fashioned radiators under the kitchen sinks. So, I would keep Ernestine in a black plastic cement mixing container on the counter. She also had a light to increase her exposure beyond what we had in the more northern latitude.... and so Ernestine grew.... and grew.

One fateful day, Ernestine now a full 18 inches long and almost 20 pounds, felt she needed to get out of her confinement.

My young daughter and a friend sleep beneath over in the basement in a room for guests beneath the kitchen. In the dark of morning they heard what they thought to be rain falling but, instead they awoke to find the ceiling tiles floating in a foot of water in the basement. They got up in a panic to find water coming down the walls and the stairs ..... Up they rushed to find Ernestine had slipped out of her cement mixing bucket and into the kitchen sink. She had tried to get out of the sink and had turned the hot water on her self. By the time we all saw the deluge, the water was cold... but Ernestine had burned herself quite badly.

The vet in Ohio had me give Ernestine anti-bacterial injections because her neck, her front legs, and her back legs were swollen and smelled of infection. Flies started to infest under her shell but one of the other smaller tortoises kept an eye on the maggots and followed Ernestine about for small snacks. Eventually, Ernestine healed but the scutes on her upper carapace fell off.

How big do leopards tortoises grow? Well, in 1993 I traveled to South Africa, where these reptiles are from. I was standing next to my hosts near an open field near the back brush. Down below in a clearing I spotted something about 3/4 mile away that looked very familiar. I yelled. "it's a tortoise!" and ran down the hill with a small crowd behind me not understanding my glee. I found a small coffee table sized female leopard tortoise which, could have weighed over a hundred pounds.... and out from the bushes around her were four or five males - around 25 to 30 pounds. I brushed her back and found a few ticks the size of the end of my thumb attached to the soft part of her carapace between the scutes. She never flinched as I touched her. Wonderful!

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