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The Dedication of Tortoises

February 23, 1986|VICKI HEARNE

Americans are born to the tales that teach them how to deal with the death of most pets. The stories about Black Beauty, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin help us to know what to do or say when an individual dog or horse proves to be mortal. But we have, sadly, no tortoise stories to speak of; nothing prepares us to find out that Lettuce Mouth II is not going to be a clone of Lettuce Mouth the original.

Nonetheless, a tortoise is ineluctably a particular tortoise. This means, Judie Lewellen told me, that when a tortoise is doing something, that is what the tortoise is doing. If a tortoise is traveling north by northwest, and you interfere, pointing the critter southeast, it is so quickly and inexorably once again going north by northwest that you have the impression you only thought you'd picked it up and turned it in another direction. Sort of as though you had dreamed you had deflected the moon from its appointed rounds.

That is as much dedication as you ever get, even in an elephant. Lewellen has a tortoise named Lucille--a male, as it happens--who has a thing about getting behind the toilet. This is a primal, visionary thing. This is what Lucille does. That's all there is to it. There it is, Lucille wanting to get behind the toilet. The only problem is that Lucille doesn't fit behind the toilet, so Lewellen sleeps to the comforting sound of scratching. All night long.

Lucille weighs five pounds and is probably between 8 and 9 years old. He is not Lewellen's only tortoise. There is Tank, who earns his name in part by weighing 19 pounds. (The record weight for a captive California desert tortoise is 24 pounds.) And tortoises have terrible, primeval battles. Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, they agree to have battles, as near as I can make out. Another of Lewellen's tortoises, 11-pound Peter, who is very macho , collides with Tank at every opportunity, having resounding head-to-head collisions, reminding me of the things I learned early on about dinosaurs. Here is the horrible thing. In these battles they try to flip each other over by sliding the edges of their shells under each other and shoving. In the wild, this maneuver is potentially fatal, as the tortoise will die if he doesn't right himself. I knew that human beings sometimes do this sort of thing to tortoises, but I thought that tortoises themselves were deep souls, beyond that sort of thing. Apparently not. Furthermore, in these battles, coolheadedness matters more than size and strength. Lucille (five pounds) has flipped Tank (19 pounds).

So why bother keeping tortoises? Especially when you consider the bother. You can't just let the tortoise hang around in the backyard and that's it. Tortoise veterinary medicine is a complicated thing, and some vets wisely refuse to deal with tortoises. For example, if a tortoise has a cold, you don't dare let him hibernate, because the immune system shuts down. And when the season for it comes, a tortoise really wants to hibernate. A tortoise who wants to hibernate has plenty of resources and is hard to wake up. Their Latin name starts with the word gopherus , because burrowing is one of the things they are good at, and a tortoise intent on burrowing and snoozing is as formidable as--well, as a tortoise who is intent on something. Even in Southern California, Lewellen has trouble keeping Lucille and Peter, who have respiratory infections, awake. Despite her concientious and successful efforts to provide sufficient warmth, light and space to imitate summer, the impulse to burrow is still strong. A sleepy tortoise is sleepy .

So why would anyone bother keeping a tortoise? Why bother keeping any animal? Most people shouldn't keep tortoises, of course, which is why the fish and game laws require people to have licenses to do so, but I think that keeping tortoises is part of Adam's task, the one Adam and Eve accepted when God gave them dominion over the beasts of the field and so on.

The way that you can tell that it is worthwhile to be a tortoise keeper is the usual one. When a tortoise dies, a tortoise keeper weeps. And the next one won't be the same.

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