Slow and Steady Wins the Race

By Dr. Anndrea Kapke

A distressed tortoise crawled into a police station.
“Officer! I was just robbed by a violent gang of snails!”
“OK, calm down,” said the officer, “and tell me everything that happened.”
“I’ll try, “said the tortoise, “but it all happened so fast!”
Strictly speaking, tortoises are land turtles and the term “turtle” should be reserved for aquatic or semi-aquatic animals. But often people will use the term “turtle” to refer to both land and water animals. Tortoises are reptiles, which means they are cold blooded so they rely on their environment to regulate their body temperature. Tortoises range in size from a few centimeters to two meters. Most tortoises are herbivores. They are slow moving animals that rely on their shell for protection. Remember Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare? The speedy hare is certain he can beat the slow tortoise at a race. In his over confidence, the hare takes it easy and doesn’t pay attention until too late and the slow and steady tortoise actually wins the race. The tortoise comes out ahead when it comes to life span too. It isn’t uncommon for tortoises to outlive their human owners. Records for such long-lived animals can be a little shaky, but some sources say the second longest living vertebrate animal was a tortoise (the oldest was reportedly a Koi that lived to be 226 years old) named Tu’i Malilia who was a gift from British explorer Captain Cook to the Tongon royal Chinese family in 1777. Tu’i Malilia lived to be 188 years old. Tortoises often live to be 100-150 years old, so this is a pet that you need to leave directions for in your will. Although it would be handy, counting the rings on a tortoise’s shell like the rings in a tree trunk, is not an accurate way to determine the tortoise’s age.
Although tortoises don’t move quickly, they do move and some grow quite large. They aren’t ideal indoor pets because they can cause a surprising amount of damage to dry wall and furniture. They are better suited to an outer pen in Arizona then our sometimes cold, rainy, and snowy Indiana. Another thing to keep in mind when considering either a tortoise or turtle for a pet, is that reptiles may carry the bacteria Salmonella. Salmonella can cause disease and potentially death in children younger than six, the elderly, and immunosuppressed people, such as those with HIV, organ transplant recipients or those undergoing chemotherapy. Reptiles that are carriers of Salmonella don’t look sick. The Salmonella bacteria can’t be washed off the animals and antibiotics won’t clear the bacteria from the animals. Since 1975, it has been illegal in the United States to sell turtles that are less than four inches in diameter (so that small children can’t fit them in their mouths.)
After careful consideration, if you decide that a tortoise is the pet for you, get one from a tortoise rescue organization, such as Indiana Turtle Care ( Because tortoises live so long and need so much space, rescue organizations can’t keep many at a time and are quickly overwhelmed. When people decide they no longer want a pet tortoise or turtle, releasing them into the wild isn’t a kind option. The animals usually starve or freeze to death because they aren’t adapted to our local outside environment.
If you see a tortoise or turtle in the road, pick them up (as long as it is safe for you to do so) and put them at the side, still going in the same direction. If you turn them around, they’ll end up stubbornly heading in the same direction they were heading before and end up crossing the road again.
Slow and steady wins the race as long as there aren’t any cars.

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