The cardboard box stood in the open doorway of the downtown shop. I peered in. A box of live tortoises. I entered the shop that was lined with burlap bags of lentils, dry beans, chick peas, corn and other grains.
“Are the tortoises for sale?” I asked. My youngest son, Nicky, would soon be celebrating his sixth birthday. I thought he’d like a pet.
They all looked the same, so I reached into the box and pulled one out. The shopkeeper put him in a small box, tied it with string and poked holes in the top. I carried the box carefully, boarded the metro and arrived home with our new pet.
Nicky loved the tortoise and named him “Speedy Gonzalez” because on warm days his tortoise walked around the garden at an unexpected pace. We tried different foods with Speedy: ripe bananas, apricots, plums, cherries and leaves and grass in the garden. If he didn’t like something he simply plowed over it like an army tank.
Speedy lived year round in our walled backyard until one very rainy day, I found him floundering in a puddle, head submerged. We wondered if we shouldn’t leave him outside in this weather. We bought a small book about tortoises. They needed to hibernate in a dark indoor place once outdoor temperatures reached lower than ten degrees.
The next fall we placed him in a low cardboard box with a layer of soil in the toolshed. In late spring, when he began to move around, we took him outside in the daytime and returned him to his box on cooler nights.
The years passed by. Nicky, now called Nico, graduated from the university and took a job as a guide in Patagonia. I took over turtle care, though Speedy never required much care. We kept an eye on him in hot weather as he’d sneak into our bedroom and squeeze under a radiator. He loved dark corners. Summer nights he’d find a spot to sleep behind a flower pot, or beside a thick bougainvillea trunk or tucked into a hole he’d carved out. His favorite season is apricot season, when he gorges on the fallen fruit.
After Nico moved on to studies and jobs overseas, I became the official tortoise caretaker. One year, I noticed that Speedy was not his usual tortoise self, less active and eating little. After a few phone calls, I located Francisca, a veterinarian who specialized in tortoises. She informed us that Speedy is a chelonoidis chilensis, but that, in spite of his scientific name, he comes from Argentina. She examined, weighed him, checked inside his mouth and sent me to the other end of town to have him x-rayed. A tortoise x-ray! Results: Speedy had pneumonia and was underweight. Since he wouldn’t eat on his own, we had to feed him special tortoise food, vitamins and antibiotics with a syringe and we couldn’t let him hibernate. We set up a home-made tortoise terrarium: a large clear plastic box with a lamp, a heating element, a thermometer and lined with shredded paper. But Speedy still wanted to hibernate.
I picked him up and looked into his eyes. “No, Speedy! You can’t sleep! You must eat.”
Feeding him was a slow, two-person ordeal. First measure the food into a syringe. Then I’d say to the day’s designated helper (the cleaning lady or my husband) “I’ll hold his neck and open his mouth and you drop in the food.” I’d grab at his squiggly neck but he’d whisk back into his shell. After a tug of war (he has the strength of an ox), I’d manage to pry open is jaw.
I told the vet, “This is a struggle.”
“Try relaxing him, petting him,” she said.
Okay. I can do that.
If it was too much food, it oozed out of his nose. We’d wait several minutes for him to swallow before repeating the procedure. This process took about half an hour. We did this daily for two winters. Eventually, Speedy became more cooperative and he and I even developed a bond of sorts. Then one spring he finally returned to his normal tortoise behavior.
But this past summer, I noted that once more he was not well. Even the apricots didn’t tempt him. Back to the vet. Blood tests. Antibiotics and vitamins. A kidney problem. Hand feeding again.
Nico has moved back to Chile with his wife and now has a daughter. When I tell him how stressful tortoise feeding has become, he decides it’s time for him to take over care of his tortoise. The vet suggests that to facilitate the feeding, she’ll attach a plastic tube to his shell and insert the other end into a small hole in his neck.
This costly surgery requires anesthesia. Nico takes Speedy to his house that has a good size walled in garden. But feeding with the tube does not go well. One day as Speedy roamed the garden, the tube came out.
Yet, the treatment was effective.
Speedy has become more active in the summer sun and developed an appetite. He’s eating apricots, mangos, peaches and the all-time favorite, figs. Now it is fall and he recently has chosen to hibernate, staying active way longer than he ever did in all the years at our house.
People ask: how old is Speedy? Speedy has been in the family for over 35 years. How old he was when we bought him is a mystery. The family’s two dogs have accepted this reptile into their outdoor territory. And Nico’s two-year-old daughter, Mila, is enjoying getting to know Speedy.
I miss saying good morning to Speedy in our yard after so many years but I’m pleased that he is thriving in his new home.