Deirdre Reilly: A tortoise named Gary

Deirdre Reilly

After a few minutes of thoughtful consideration, I have decided to take the plunge and adopt. My husband and I are going to add to our brood of three kids, two cats and one hound dog. I figured we’ve been great with the dog, and the kids are all turning out OK, so why not? We’d be great parents – again.

Parents of a tortoise, that is, a tortoise by the name of Gary. Gary belonged to my friend Sylvia, and recently I asked how Gary was doing, and she asked if I’d like to adopt him. Sure, I said, not really bothering to check in at home about this decision. I had gotten all the other pets without consensus – a dog, two cats and almost a racehorse – so adding a tortoise is no biggie at all. Plus, it would be a good learning experience for my son James, who is 9. Of course, building a rocket ship is a great learning experience, but not in your own back yard, necessarily.

The news of Gary’s imminent arrival cast ripples through the family. First, we decided to go to Petco and get products and information. I have kind of lame personal boycott of Petco – my boycott is lame, because I keep going there and spending money. The original boycott was in place because at Christmas, the employees were ordered to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and an employee told me under her breath that they were fined actual dollars if they said “Merry Christmas.” And so, my lame boycott began. Now, when I go, I just add a “Merry Christmas,” no matter what time of year it is.

So my 9-year-old and I asked a sales associate about tortoises (while quietly humming “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” under our breaths). The employee said, “Is the tortoise a sucata?” Now, I don’t know about you, but I have never heard this word in my life. “Well, he has a shell, and some legs and a head,” I said, wondering what a sucata is. The employee grinned slightly. “Some species of tortoise can weigh as much as 200 pounds, and they can live as long as 100 years,” she said. My son said, “Cool!” while I looked into the distance toward the ferrets and thought about this. Two hundred pounds? What was I going to do with a 200-pound tortoise – use him as some sort of avant-garde moving coffee table? Rent out his shell as advertising space and walk him on the town common? Craft some sort of saddle for him and offer tortoise rides? And a lifespan of 100 years? I would have to provide for Gary in my will!  My grandchildren could be saddled with Gary after I’m gone! (On the plus side, that might be all I have to leave them, and it would be a cool bequest.)

“Well, Merry Christmas, we did not know that,” I said, while reaching for a fake tree log, some hay in a bag, and a plastic plant for our tortoise habitat. The employee continued, “Do you have an outdoor habitat? They can tunnel, dig and climb through almost anything.” Gary was suddenly beginning to take on superhero status, between his lifespan, possible eventual weight and athletic prowess. He had looked so small and fun and easy when I saw him at Sylvia’s!

Long story short, Gary is here now, and eating everything in sight. He loves people, and he especially loves my dog, who loves him right back. (Gary crawls up to Copper and nudges him, and then they both fall asleep together.) Gary is the size of a salad plate now, but we’re ready for anything, because we have fallen in love.

Two things I have learned from Gary. The first is that sometimes the best pet ownership is learning that someone else can offer more. Thanks, Sylvia, for giving us Gary when you realized that your boys had outgrown him. I have one happy 9-year-old over here. The other thing I am learning from Gary is that slow and steady does win the race, as trite as it sounds. It is somehow touching to watch Gary move along, sure of where he’s going (toward the dog, usually) and ready to adapt, should an eager child change his course. We all should be so slow … and free. And if Gary could say one thing to you now, I’m pretty sure it would be these two words: Merry Christmas.

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