Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Another Tortoise Tale

Amongst a plethora of dogs, snails, frogs, and hairy rain-spiders Chez Kaartman also hosts a tortoise, a small female rooipensie tortoise named Dink, aged about 28 years.
If Dink had a male tortoise he’d be called Humper. Humper and Dink could have been called Bert and Engel, but that subtlety escaped us when the naming occurred.
Like most tortoises Dink spends most of her day asleep in her bony house, emerging mornings and evenings for a cruise around eating mostly precious garden plants. Dink is something of a gastronome: the rarer and more difficult a plant is to grow, the more likely Dink is to eat it.
Not long ago Dink discovered that the Kaartmans enjoy summer breakfasts on the outside stoep. Summer is spaanspek time [spaanspek: a small, sweet melon. The name means “Spanish bacon”, alluding to the imagined breakfast diet of Iberians]. There is probably nothing as ravishingly delicious as a really good spaanspek, an opinion with which Dink clearly concurs. Roll out the spaanspek and she comes racing across the lawn, scrawny neck outstretched. At the edge of the stoep she fixes her black, beady eyes upon us and waits with chelonian patience for her bit.
Dink comes racing across the lawn
At a recent breakfast we offered Dink a slightly vrot nectarine instead. She attacked it with gusto, ripping the soft sweet flesh to bits with her sharp little beak, swallowing great gobs of it with peristaltic throaty heaves.
A slightly vrot nectarine
But a tortoise has a problem. Living in a bony box might be a good way of surviving falling objects, etc etc but it has certain restrictive effects. Like eating. You can’t gorge if you’re a tortoise. You can’t binge eat or bloat. You would literally pop, a messy way to go. Dink left the last bit of nectarine uneaten, pulled in her undercarriage and sank back in a sort of digestive daze.
It was at this point that we – some might say cruelly – pulled out the spaanspek, and offered a piece of its juicy skin to Dink.
Now, as you might know, rooipensie tortoises tend to live in dry climates where fresh water is hard to come by. Consequently they are able to store water in their bodies in a special bladder, and they have been known to live on this supply for up to a year without drinking. If you pick up a wild skillie it will wee all over you – it releases its water bladder to put you off and persuade you to leave it alone. Don’t pick them up – you may inadvertently kill them if they can’t replenish that water supply before they dehydrate.
Dink squared up to the spaanspek, but she was full. And that’s when a most extraordinary thing happened.
I have never read of this in any herpetological reference – please let me know if I am wrong in suggesting that Dink’s behaviour might be something of a new discovery!
Dink uttered a small, squeaky cry – the first sound from her that we have ever heard. Then she wee’d. Water simply poured out of her until she was sitting in a prodigious, smelly-ish puddle. She finished off with a pretty large defecation, too.
Space inside her box thus created, she consumed the spaanspek skin.
Sounds a bit like one of those Roman orgies, hay. The Romans made defensive “tortoises” out of interlocking shields – they called them “testudo” too [“tortoise”] – but whether a Roman testudo employed the same processes as Dink at orgies I cannot say.
I certainly hope not.

Kaartman Jan 2013