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Small Talk: Bless you, tortoises!

There are various unusual pets to be found these days, but locally, a tale of two tortoises continues to fascinate me.

My friends are the custodians of desert tortoises, and these reptiles have always seemed a very classy, rather civilized creature. That is, until I recently learned that they sneeze, and now require the owners to put drops up their nose. I don’t think I even knew tortoises had nasal passages. I can sort of see where they might be, but they seem really, really tiny. And here I thought it was tricky getting de-waxing solution in a retriever’s ear.

I must immediately calm all animal lovers, by assuring them that my friends neither caught nor bought these tortoises. They inherited them. They were found in the road in Orange County in the 1930s, by a relative. The critters lived with a great-aunt, while the fellow, who rescued them from being road kill, went off to World War II. Then when he died in the 70s, my friends graciously took on the care of the two males.

And if you envision having a tortoise for a pet as a simple task, you would be wrong. These stately creatures get a pre- and post-hibernation check up, plus regular good health visits at the veterinarian. They get special vegetation to eat and they have their own custom-built shelter and the run of a really big backyard. They even got to attend the wedding reception of my friends’ youngest daughter.

The pair are very probably nearing 100 years old. A predator-free lifespan for their species in the wild is only 50 to 80 years. These two serene creatures now have the ultimate retirement home.

First, I love the fact that there is a vet out there who is knowledgeable enough to examine and diagnose a desert tortoise. During their recent pre-hibernation exam, this same rare doc noticed that one of them sneezed. Upon further investigation, he noted their throats were a bit red. I am absolutely tickled by the mental image of a vet getting a tortoise’s mouth open wide enough and long enough to see what color its throat is. At first, the vet thought they were seriously red, but then discovered he was looking at a piece of hibiscus leaf. Nonetheless, their little throats were redder than he liked.

Lab tests turned up a bacterial infection that my friends will be treating with tortoise nose drops, three times a day. Again, I am chuckling at the mental image of coaxing a tortoise to keep its head out long enough to get medicine up the nose.

As silly as all this sounds, my friends assured me that inserting drops is far simpler than getting them to ingest a pill. When all is said and done, I still puzzle how one gets a tortoise to lean back and tilt its head up, when it very probably would rather not. And what the risk level is of losing a finger in the process.

Jean Gillette is a

freelance writer who likes desert tortoises because they make her feel young. Contact her at [email protected].