Archive for Saturday, January 12, 2002

Low and slow

Pet store’s tortoises bring customers out of shells

January 12, 2002


Visitors to Pet World are in for an unexpected treat.

In a large, straw-filled pen, four large African spur-thigh tortoises that are between 25 and 30 years old huddle under the warmth of a heat lamp.

There are two males and two females in the pen. The males weigh about 100 pounds each, while the females come in at about 75 pounds apiece, according to Tim Emerson, owner of the pet store at 711 W. 23rd St.

The reptiles aren't for sale. They're just there for people who visit the store to watch and enjoy.

"In the summertime, they live out on my mom's farm," Emerson said. "I have a big, humongous pen for them. They just eat prairie grass. In the wild where they come from, it's pretty much like the plains of Kansas. All they do is walk around and eat vegetation."

Emerson has had the earth-colored tortoises, which are native to west-central Africa, for about 10 years now. They're called spur thighs because of their big, armored legs.

They're fairly easy for Pet World's staff to take care of. Employees feed the tortoises lots of lettuce, carrots, zucchini, endive, spinach and the occasional apple.

"When they were smaller, I kept them in my yard in town," Emerson said. "But they ate all the grass and turned it into a mud pit."

Because the animals are from the African savannah, where it's hot and dry, they don't even need much water. They conserve it in their bodies for a long time, Emerson said.

Pet World sells baby African spur-thigh tortoises, which are palm sized, for $100.

"It's good to have the adult ones here. You can show people what the babies are going to look like some day," Emerson said. "The little ones are the cutest thing in the world, but pretty soon they turn into big monster turtles."

The store also sells a variety of much smaller aquatic turtles that range in price from $20 to $35.

It's unusual to find adult tortoises of this size, such as Emerson's African spur-thighs, on display in a pet store. They're more commonly seen at places like zoos, according to Luke Welton, Pet World's reptile curator.

"People who come here usually say, 'Wow I didn't know you guys have those,'" he said.

The adult tortoises are just reaching sexual maturity, which means they will soon be able to mate and lay eggs.

"I think they're the coolest animals ever. I kind of want one," Welton said. "They're so cute as babies, it's hard to resist."

Emerson warns potential buyers that if they want such a tortoise, they'd better be prepared to take care of it for many years.

"When you buy an animal, you should be responsible for it for its lifetime," he said. "If you buy a tortoise, that can be a long, long time. These guys are kind of exceptional."

Welton puts it like this: "They're a pet for you, your kids and your grandkids."

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