Four-Legged Friends: Sampson the Tortoise


One of the most unusual pets I have had was a Brazilian yellow legged tortoise. I purchased it at a pet store in Natick on a whim. Which is a very bad way to purchase any pet. More on that later.

Sampson the tortoise found a better home at the zoo.

Sampson the tortoise found a better home at the zoo.

I named my new friend Sampson. Sampson’s shell was about a foot long. With his legs and head extended, he was a good 16 inches from end to end. Sampson came to live with me when I was a “garden level” apartment renter, which is a fancy way of saying I lived in a basement apartment. Basement apartments can be a bit damp and cool. And guess what? A Brazilian tortoise will not thrive in a damp, cool apartment.

When I wasn’t home, I kept Sampson in a large aquarium. I outfitted the tank with a sun lamp and a heating pad, as the pet store told me to. I fed him things like hamburger, melon, and spinach, like the pet store told me to. He was a fascinating creature! When he ate, he reminded me of a piece of heavy construction equipment, because his head would first extend outward, then his mouth would open, he would bend his neck, and then kind of dive at the food with his toothless mouth wide open, like one of those machines that scoops up huge loads of debris. He once mistook my big toe for a piece of melon — I was very glad he had no teeth!

I let Sampson roam about the apartment when I was home. I didn’t understand why he kept looking for dark, quiet places to hide. I took Sampson outside when I could and let him walk around on the lawn. A great thing about a pet tortoise is that they don’t go anywhere fast. One day, I took him to the condo pool. Please note: tortoises cannot swim! I didn’t know that. Remember, I purchased this exotic animal on a whim, not having done any of the appropriate research. I tried to let him swim in the pool, and he sank like a rock. He was fine, but I think that was when I realized I was doing him a huge disservice not knowing much about him, and I dedicated myself to learning more about the proper care of a South American tortoise.

It turns out the reason he was seeking out quiet, dark places is that he was attempting to hibernate. It was too cold in my apartment, and his body was telling him he needed to go to sleep. Reptiles need certain levels of heat and humidity to properly digest their food. He was eating just fine, but he wasn’t digesting properly. If allowed to continue living in the conditions I had, he would have become very ill and eventually died.

I loved him. Living with him was like having a prehistoric friend in the house. But I knew I could never give him what he needed. Almost no one could. He was supposed to live at a near constant 80 degrees with 80 percent humidity. Tropical conditions, in other words. Which is why I now believe it is wrong for pet shops to sell exotic animals of any type. Few owners are educated enough and able to take care of them. No animal should be destined for a short, unhealthy life in the name of profit.

I could have returned Sampson to the pet store. But they would have sold him to someone else, and I didn’t think anyone could have done any better than I had. Instead, I contacted the Franklin Park Zoo. They have a tropical rainforest exhibit — perfect for a Brazilian tortoise. They were thrilled to get my call. You see, they had one Brazilian tortoise already. They hoped that my Sampson was female, as theirs was male. I didn’t even know how to tell that …

A representative from the zoo came to my apartment. The first thing he did was lift up Sampson by the bottom shell, and declare, “It’s a girl!” Females have a flat bottom shell, while males have a large dent in their bottom shell. I should have known that. They assured me that Sampson was in good health and that I had done a pretty decent job taking care of her. I signed her over to them and gave her a kiss goodbye. It was sad seeing her go, but I knew that they could provide a much, much better home than any pet owner could. And she would have a mate!

That was many years ago. I have tried to contact the zoo and ask if she is still alive and well, but have not gotten a response. I assume she is, as a tortoise such as Sampson would easily outlive me given the proper care. I learned a very valuable lesson: domestic animals like dogs, cats, and hamsters make good pets. Exotic animals like South American tortoises and sugar gliders do not. And I learned to never go blindly into pet ownership again. Sampson’s outcome could have been tragic for her. Always read up on what you’re getting into. Even common dog and cat breeds have different dispositions and needs. Pick one that matches your family’s level of activity. Small, delicate animals simply do not make good pets for children, nor do nocturnal ones. It’s very important that you do your homework before you adopt or buy. Learn from my mistake.

Four-Legged Friends by Susan Scheide appears monthly in the Canton Citizen. Not a subscriber? Click here to order your subscription today.

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avatar Posted by on Aug 7 2015. Filed under Featured Content, Opinion. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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