Friday, June 8, 2012

School gives refuge to homeless tortoise

Caretakers seek permanent home for exotic reptile

Express Staff Writer

Almost-4-year-old Bennett Kemp plays with Bolt, an African Sulcata tortoise, which is almost exactly her age. Bolt is only 20 pounds now, but will soon be too big to remain at the Big Wood School where he currently resides. Photo by David N. Seelig

A 20-pound African tortoise, named Bolt, seems to be living the good life at the Big Wood School in Ketchum, playing with the children and munching the occasional dandelion in the school's backyard.

He's currently part of a kindergarten menagerie that includes eight chicks and a Russian dwarf turtle, though he presides over his classroom from a private raised enclosure—the equivalent of a turtle suite.

However, while his suite seems spacious enough for the moment, kindergarten teacher Julie Swenke said the tortoise's days there are numbered, as he will likely double in size in the next few years and become too much for the classroom to handle.

"We cannot keep him," she said. "This cage is too small for him, and I built an enclosure for him out in the yard, but on a day like today"—with a high of 50 degrees—"we can't leave him outside for too long."

Bolt—properly named Lightning Bolt by the students because of his surprising speed—is an African Sulcata tortoise, a member of the third-largest species of tortoise in the world. The tortoise, also known as an African spurred tortoise for the unique formations on its legs, needs temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit to remain comfortable and a diet full of fiber and protein.

Bolt is about the size of a small dog now, but Swenke said he will likely reach 200 pounds.

"Most people raise them until they can't lift them anymore," she said. Already, Bolt must be moved to his outdoor enclosure using a cart, and he is only one-tenth of his eventual size.

Swenke said she got the tortoise from a friend who bought him at a fair in Washington four years ago. The tortoise was purchased with another, but they eventually became unable to live together.

"When the males reach a certain maturity, they can't exist together and try to kill each other," Swenke said. "This one was flipping his little friend over while she was gone at work."

The friend brought Bolt to the Big Wood School and begged a reluctant Swenke to take him in.


"I said, 'No, I have another turtle already,'" Swenke said. "But I watched him around the kids, and they were feeding him. He walked around and they made tunnels with their legs. They just love him."

So Swenke gave in. Bolt is great with the kids, she said, and despite his size, is not a danger to any of her diminutive students. Sulcatas are known for their pleasant demeanor, and Swenke said the tortoise is not easily frightened.

"The girl who got him, was trying really hard to get him in his shell, spook him, and it was really hard," she said. "He wouldn't even go in. The only reason he would ever bite the kids would be if they put their finger up there and he'd think it was food."

Swenke said that Bolt is fun for her to have around, too.

"Sometimes, I'll be at my desk and hear 'Wsssht, wsssht,'" she said with a laugh. "I'll come over, and there is dirt blowing all over the place."

Although Swenke and her students wish they could keep him, Swenke is hoping to find Bolt a new home sooner rather than later—preferably by the end of summer. But his options are somewhat limited, as collectors and zoos may not be interested.

"People usually don't buy them when they are this big already," she said. "A lot of zoos won't even take him because if they have another giant tortoise, they can't put them together."

Also complicating the matter is Bolt's long lifespan—roughly 30 to 50 years, though they can live longer if properly taken care of.

"He'll live longer than whoever can take care of him," Swenke said. "If you take care of it, it's a life-long pet."

But until a new home can be found, Bolt will remain at the school, chomping dandelions and scooting around the classroom as fast as his spurred legs can take him.

"It would be awesome if we could keep him, if we had somewhere for the winter where he could stay," Swenke said. "But even if someone would donate money, we would have to find the space. And I would love it if we could find [a home] someplace else."

Katherine Wutz:

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