6 December 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Leopard (tortoise) in the Birdbath

We have a leopard tortoise that roams our garden in summer. It was the fault of the Great Dane living in our neighbour’s yard that we ended up with him.

Pascal the giant dog was chewing on what looked like a bone two years ago. My neighbour Melina thought nothing of it, then decided to check, since she hadn’t given him a bone. Prying his massive jaws apart, she found this tortoise, or at least a tortoise shell, since the poor thing had pulled every fragile limb in as far as it would go.

Convinced the tortoise had died of a heart attack (and who wouldn’t?) she brought it to me, to either revive or bury, since I am the beast go-to-girl in our little cul de sac (also known as the Grateful Dead-End).

After an hour or more, the tortoise slowly came to life. We named him Flash Gordon.

And ever since this small tortoise, which could easily fit on my palm when we got him, has bumbled about our not-very-well tended garden. I haven’t tended him very well either. He does his own thing. I didn’t give him water or special treats like because who would feed him when we went away? I figured he had to survive like his cousins in the surrounding Karoo veld.

He did and still does, eating the lawn, clover, and any succulents he can reach. He hibernates the winters away, then reappears in September.

Recently Chris and I went to a game reserve about 2 hours’ drive away. There the owner mentioned that at this time of year - early summer - you often see tortoises wading into water.

“They just sort of stay there for ages. I think maybe they’re drowning ticks. Or drinking. Or maybe they just like it.”

So I got to thinking about Gordon. Would he like to immerse himself in water? The very next sunny day I saw him (because he sometimes vanishes for weeks) I filled up the bird bath and put him into it.

Well, I wish you could have seen it. After a perfunctory hiss of protest, he acted as if I’d dropped him in paradise. He stretched out his neck, dipped his face underwater, took a long drink and relaxed all his legs so that they floated and bobbed. When he eventually moved, it was only to drag himself to the edge and eat some clover, his body still immersed and his eyes glazed over with bliss.

After that I got Jan Manuel, our part-time gardener, to dig the bird bath into the flower bed and make it easier for Gordon to climb into.

We’ve just been away for a few weeks, so when we got back I asked Jan whether he’d seen the tortoise.
Bearing in mind Jan is a man not prone to exaggeration, this is what he said: “Yes - he often climb into the birdbath and plays. But when I put the sprinkler on, he really enjoys that. He goes and digs himself a hole in the mud and there he cavorts.” (The Afrikaans word is ‘baljaar’).

Cavorts! Leopard tortoises. Who knew?

Category: Wildlife


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