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African Tortoise found in Waco

Sept. 20, 1996

Chelsa Dunn/The LariatTony the Tortoise was found by Tracie Young, the wife of a Baylor DPS officer, on her way to Killeen. Experts from Baylor Biology and Cameron Park are evaluating him.

By Michael Giles

Lariat Reporter

In the relatively slow-paced life of a tortoise, the most excitement one can usually expect is taking an afternoon nap and dreaming about racing with a hare.

One local tortoise, however, has had quite a hectic week. Starting the week lost and alone, he ended it going to a place where he will bring delight to thousands of people.

The story began when Tracie Young, the wife of Col. Robert Young, a Baylor Department of Public Safety officer, left for work in Killeen Saturday morning. She had not driven far when she saw something strange in the road and stopped to see what it was.

A very large tortoise was resting in the middle of the street, just minding his business and soaking up the morning sunshine. It appeared to be in good physical condition, so she picked the tortoise up and put it in her truck so it would not get run over by oncoming traffic.

On Tuesday morning, Col. Young brought the tortoise to the Baylor campus to see what species it was and to find out what to do next. Dr. Kenneth Wilkins, an associate professor of biology, assisted Young in determining exactly what species it was.

Tony the Tortoise, as Young named him, turned out to be a African spiked tortoise.

So how did the approximately one-and-a-half foot long and 10 -pound tortoise end up in Central Texas?

No one knows for sure, but Young speculated it may be the escaped pet of some soldier from Fort Hood who picked it up on a training mission in Arizona or California. However, as of Thursday afternoon, no one had reported a missing pet tortoise at Fort Hood.

Since Young had been keeping the tortoise safe and comfortable in his horse barn since Saturday, Wilkins advised him to just keep it there until they could find someone to take it off his hands.

Young took the tortoise back to his horse barn, where it rested comfortably and ate a diet of grapes, lettuce and apples. He checked on it at least once a day, but when he was not there, his wife and children gave Tony plenty of attention.

Wilkins said when people find stray animals and bring them to the biology department, they try to make connections and find it a proper home. He said the department likes to place them in instructional settings, such as zoos, where people can learn from and about them.

Thursday afternoon, Young turned the tortoise over to officials from the Cameron Park Zoo who will use it in their new $2 million herpetarium, which will open next July. This exhibit will feature many different types of reptiles, such as alligators and different types of lizards. The tortoise will be a part of the desert section of the exhibit.

Until the exhibit opens, the tortoise will stay in the zoo's reptile holding facility, where it will rest comfortably in a terrarium.

Binder said this particular tortoise looks like a miniature version of the huge Galapagos tortoise, which can weigh up to 450 lbs. The Cameron Park Zoo currently has several of these animals on display.

Confusion abounds on the differences between turtles and tortoises, at least outside of zoological circles. The main differences lie in that tortoises live solely on land and have short and stumpy legs, unlike turtles, who often live in water and have flippers and webbed feet. Since most tortoises live in very dry climates, they are built for enduring extreme temperatures. They also have thick padding on their feet to protect them from rough terrain.

Wild tortoises usually eat green leafy vegetation, but in captivity, they get something along the lines of a Chef salad, with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. When threatened by predators, they tend to hide under brush or rocks or hide inside their shell, Binder said.

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