How a flea market tortoise became man’s best friend
Mutombo is one of those animals you leave in your will, » jokes Charleston native Joshua Fulton Fay. And with an estimated lifespan of up to 150 years, Fay’s right. Lucky for him, and Mutombo, the pair seem quite smitten with each other.
Named after a retired NBA seven-foot center Dikembe Mutombo, Fay’s African spurred tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata) takes after his athletic eponym. I mean, really, I’d put my money on this guy over the hare any day. Mutombo, sitting at about 80 pounds, scoots speedily (compared to one’s preconceived notions about the reptile) around Fays’ parents’ expansive backyard where he lives full time — once the gentle giant even got through the accidentally-left-open front gate and made it down the street of the James Island neighborhood. « The neighbors were posting to Twitter; they didn’t know what was going on, » says Fay. « He came back to our front yard on his own accord, though. He knows where his food and shelter are, plus, I think he likes us. »
Fifteen year old Mutombo is at the beginning of his long life; Fay purchased the heavy lifter when he was a baby the size of a « half-dollar » at the Ladson flea market for a cool $75, « maybe it was even only $50 » — Fay can’t recall. Either way, quite a steal for the longtime (lifelong, even) companion. The vendor informed young Fay, a self-professed turtle nerd, and his mom that the deceivingly tiny turtle was the third largest tortoise species in the world.
The growing took a while, though — Mutombo was the size of a helmet at age five, and now, about the weight of a Labrador, Fay’s exotic pet is expected to grow even larger. The animal’s shell bears a resemblance to tree rings; it expands as the tortoise grows, with the scutes — keratinous scales — becoming marked with age. Gently tapping the protective covering, I ask Fay if Mutombo can feel my inquiring fingers. « He can probably feel the pressure, yeah, » says the soft-spoken owner. Mutombo doesn’t seem to mind, and even crawls closer and closer to my vulnerable tennis-shoed feet as I slide tentatively backward, Mutombo’s mouth opening and closing in a cute yet (for someone admittedly averse to most reptilian critters) ominous fashion. « He wants to eat me, » I say, half-joking. But the largest tortoise of the African mainland was not interested in me. He wanted the grass beneath my feet. « The grass makes up the main part of his diet — he was vegan before vegan was cool, » notes Fay, adding, « he’s not a meat-eater so he’s not super aggressive, he won’t attack you for food. » This was good news, especially because I was really starting to warm up to the scaly critter. Other than grass, Fay says Mutombo feeds on veggies like kale, squash, and dandelion greens, and he gets « pumpkin or watermelon for a treat, depending on the season. »
There’s a very visible tell for when African spurred tortoises are not healthy; their shells, instead of being smooth and rounded, begin to form sharp peaks. Mutombo’s shell had zero peaks, meaning Fay is being attentive to his tortoise’s dietary needs. On top of feasting on his fave eats, Mutombo also has his very own heated shed — Fay’s parents keep a monitor inside their house to make sure he’s always comfortable; his species is used to Saharan desert heat, after all.
On a 65-degree February afternoon, Mutombo seems pretty happy, although Fay tells me he’s probably cold. « When he’s warm, he’s happy. He can be very social; he will go up and nudge people who come over. » I ask Fay if owning an exotic animal is difficult or pricey. « Any pet will have its challenges, » he answers nonchalantly, « I think he’s relatively easy. » Fay calls to Mutombo as he cruises around the yard, « Mutombo! Come here buddy! » For someone who grew up with 100-plus pound Golden Retrievers and borderline obese tabbys, I was used to large pets. But not cold-blooded. And yet, Mutombo didn’t seem all that different from the mammals I so loved. « He knows his name, » Fay assures me. And when Mutombo cranes his neck, his skin the color a shade of what I imagine the Saharan sand looks like, I believe he does.