Tortoises Rescued By Reptile Fancier

African Species at Home in Little Egg Harbor
Aug 31, 2016
Photo by: Pat Johnson Mike Curtin takes his son Chase into the tortoises’ backyard pen. They feast on fresh vegetables, tomatoes, carrots, leafy greens – leftovers from the family’s healthy meals.

Mike Curtin said his family came back from an outing one day this summer and a neighbor had left the dried, leathery head of an alligator on their porch. “It was a gift. They know we’re ‘the reptile people,’” he said.

Curtin, of Little Egg Harbor, has the permits necessary to raise pythons for the pet trade. His family also embraces atypical critters for family pets. His wife, Allyson, has her tarantulas and her pet rat Josie. And now the younger boys, Chase, 5, and Max, 3, have two sulcata: African spurred-thigh tortoises.

The tortoises are rescued animals, Curtin explained to a visitor on Saturday as he went outside to show their spacious enclosure in the backyard. Rosabelle, the female tortoise, is twice the size of Stewart, although they are both 5 years old.

Rosabelle is the size of a small boulder while Stewart is just a good-size rock. Rosabelle was resting in one of the shaded spots provided for them but she came trundling out when she heard the sound of the hose filling a long, shallow bin. “They love the water,” said Curtin. “They drink from it, splash around in it — and poop in it. So it’s always changed.”

Chase struggled to lift Stewart over the lip into the bin. Then he ran to get his toy army soldiers.

“The male has a deformity called pyramiding due to an improper diet or lack of sunshine,” said Curtin. “They came from someplace where they weren’t let outside. When we first got them, Rosabelle wouldn’t let me do this.” (He was scratching her neck). “She would hiss at me, or pull her head in her shell.”

Now at Curtin’s house, the tortoises have everything they could want: a grassy area to graze on, soft sandy spots to make a cool earthen burrow, a bowl of turtle chow and best of all, fruits and vegetables leftover from the Curtin family table.

“After dinner, it’s fun for the boys to come out and feed them collard greens, kale, tomatoes and carrots. They also love fruit but it’s not a good idea to feed them too much fruit,” he added.

Curtin decided to get the two tortoises after throwing a birthday party for some friends. “I had the pythons and lizards the kids like to see, and I asked to borrow a friend’s tortoise for the party. The boys just had such a fun time feeding and petting it. So after that it was, ‘Can we get a tortoise? When can we get a tortoise?’”

So Curtin called one his friends in the reptile world and traveled to Massachusetts to a tortoise rescue center to pick them up.

“There are so many that need homes,” said Curtin. “They are cute when they’re small but they grow really fast. And five years later you have a 20-pound tortoise – and they eat a lot.”

They can live to be 100 years old and can get as big as 200 pounds, he said. They’re the third largest tortoise species in the world, after the Galapagos and the Aldabra. The sulcata tortoise’s natural home is in the grasslands of the Sahara dessert.

They have been a favorite pet sold at reptile shows and pet stores. “You can find them for sale but I would discourage buying one because it promotes breeding. “I don’t encourage the over-breeding of species; just the fact that there is a need for rescues proves it. There are so many up for adoption that most zoos won’t take them.”

Other provisions that were made for the tortoises include making sure they could not burrow under the fence. “You’d be amazed at how fast they can burrow,” said Curtin. He pointed out the spurs on the back legs of Rosabelle, built-in tools that aid in digging.

Come autumn, the tortoises will be moved into the heated garage in a pen lit with full spectrum lighting so they get their vitamin D. “They can only stay outdoors as long as the daytime temperatures stay in the 70s,” explained Curtin.

Once the turtles (all tortoises are turtles but not all turtles are tortoises) are able to reproduce, he will separate Rosabelle and Stewart. “She can lay 30 to 50 eggs at a time,” he explained. “That would be a lot of baby tortoises.”

Knowing all this, anyone who has the room and can make the commitment to rescue a sulcata tortoise can go to Curtin’s Facebook site: ScattershotExotix for a list of rescue groups, or just Google tortoise rescue.

— Pat Johnson

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