Advice on parenting a tortoise


JAMES LOVE  |  Special Contributor
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When I was born, my mother thought I was ugly. She told my grandmother that I looked like a turtle. Upon hearing that story at a very young age, instead of seeking a therapist immediately, I instead became obsessed with turtles and tortoises. I have always thought they were the coolest creatures on the planet. I’m sure there is some deep-seeded reason for that, but for the life of me I don’t know what it is.

My fascination with turtles grew throughout my life, thanks largely to Stephen King. In The Dark Tower series, there is a running theme with turtles. “See the turtle of enormous girth! On his shell he holds the earth. His thought is slow but always kind; he holds us all within his mind!” Also in It, a turtle represents good where Pennywise is evil. Way too many turtle references to mention. I knew one day I would I would have a turtle to call my own.

Nine years ago, my husband Jamie and I went to a new pet store in Waxahachie. In one of the terrariums, there were these two adorable little Sulcata tortoises. They were no bigger than a silver dollar. We almost left that day with one, but they were kind of expensive so I talked myself out of it … for a while. I couldn’t stop thinking about how damn cute they were and how badly I wanted one. A few weeks later, on Christmas, Santa Jamie granted my wish and gave me a new little baby.

I knew her name was going to be Ruby, even though she was actually too young to know the sex for sure. Truth is, I actually think Ruby is “Rudy,” because I saw something that looked suspiciously like a penis under her one day. Who cares — I usually call all of my guy friends “girlfriends” anyway. So Ruby is her drag name.

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Ruby doubled in size for the first five or six years we had her. She is now a whopping 103 lbs. The first few years we had her, she was in a terrarium; when she out grew that, we kept her in a kiddie pool in the dining room. That didn’t last long, because have you ever smelled vegetarian poop? It is literally the worst smell I have ever smelled. If she pooped during the night, the odor would wake me up. So my wonderful husband, who can build absolutely anything, built me a greenhouse with a door for Ruby. Inside, she had a nice heating lamp to keep her warm, and outside she had a nice enclosure where she could run loose. She loved it. If the sun was out she was making the rounds. She grazed on grass, ate lettuce and other vegetables I would get her and loved her tortoise chow. (It’s like dog food but it is a low protein grass pellet.)

This past year, she outgrew her enclosure so now she runs the whole back yard. We did have to Ruby-proof a lot of things. She is like a tank, so we had to reinforce the fence to make sure she didn’t dig it up. We hammered a bunch of three-foot spikes in the ground to keep her out of the garden and away from the pool. She is persistent though; if she wants to be somewhere badly enough, she can usually find a way.

She has a lot of personality for a cold-blooded animal. Sometimes she gets in a mean mood and will chase the dogs all over the yard. She is nosy as hell, too — if we are working in the back yard, she has to be in the middle of whatever we are doing. A few weeks ago, I was planting flowers in a pot and she was right under my feet the entire time.

She gets in destructive moods. She has pushed our outdoor love seat and fire pit completely off the porch. She is so freakin’ strong! I had to pick her up recently and move her out of our rock garden and she kicked me. It felt like I had been kicked by a cow. I still have a huge bruise on my leg.

She can be hateful. We have a huge gnome collection in our back yard. My husband loves them and we have gotten many as gifts over the years. Ruby decided about a year ago that she hates them. If there was a gnome that caught her eye, she would knock it over. We would put it back upright and an hour later she would knock it over again. It was like some crazy game of tortoise/gnome bowling. She even decapitated Gnomeo and Juliet. Oh, the horror! It’s OK — we glued their heads back on and moved them out of her way.

Here are a few fun facts about Ruby… and things you should think about before getting a pet like her. She is an African spurred Sulcata tortoise. They are found in central Africa but thrive here in Texas as long as they have a warm place to winter. She has big spikes on her thighs that look almost dinosaur-like. The spikes protect them from predators (in the wild, mostly lions). They don’t need a lot of water; they get most of their hydration from the vegetation they eat. They should never be given dog food or food high in protein, especially while they are growing; a high-protein diet could make their shells grow too fast and become misshapen. Their eyes almost always look like they are crying; that is normal. They are sometimes called “the crying tortoise.”

Even though most people call refer to her as a turtle, she is a tortoise. It’s not just about size. Tortoises are land-dwellers whereas turtles are mostly aquatic. I don’t mind which word you call her; I’m not one of those assholes. But technically she is a tortoise, and technically she is a he. I am loose with my words. I know I love my big, clumsy, kind of a bitch tortoise. I am surprised by how much I love her.

I found out just how much I love her a few weeks ago. I left to go to the grocery store one afternoon, walked out the back door and went through the gate to the car 

and left. I didn’t see Ruby in the back yard but didn’t think anything of it — when she is making her rounds, she can get behind things or down the hill. When I got back with my groceries I still didn’t see her, so I went looking for her. I noticed the gate on the other side of the house was open. My heart sank. I ran through the gate freaking out. I called Jamie and made him rush home from work. I went running up and down the street frantically searching, when I heard a lady ask if I had lost a great big turtle. She pointed into the woods near out house.

She and another neighbor, Chris, were in his warehouse when they say bushes and grasses started moving like something big was walking through the woods. They decided to check out what was making so much noise. She said when they saw it was a huge turtle, they knew it belonged to someone. She said, “them thangs don’t get that big round here, I knew it hadta be a pet.” (We live in the country.) They had taken a big wire dog crate and put over Ruby to keep her from going any further into the woods. Jamie had to back his truck into the woods to get her. I thanked them both; she said, “No problem — it’s not every day you see a monster dinosaur in the woods.” I’m not sure how the gate got open, so now we keep a padlock on it just in case. Maybe she is a ninja turtle! I am just thankful my baby is back home. I love my Ruby!         

James Love aka Cassie Nova is host of the drag show at The Rose Room and a regular columnist for Dallas Voice.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 14, 2017.