A sex-mad tortoise is terrorising my family : Placid ? Slow-moving ? Don’t you believe it…
- Julia Lawrence’s foster tortoise Chuck is proving to be quite the handful
- The tiny reptile has bit through a deckchair and is fond of chomping feet
- But it transpires his violent nature, which has the cats running scared, is just a case of desiring a little bit of female company in the garden
A menacing chill envelopes the garden and at the edge of my peripheral vision, I sense movement. Something is rustling in the bushes. Something with malevolent, black, beady eyes, sharp claws and a ravenous, insatiable lust for human flesh. My flesh, to be precise.
And there it is, crashing out of the foliage, and storming towards me across the lawn. You can almost hear it gasping out its evil intent with every step: ‘Blood! Must have blood! Must have blood!’
I have about five seconds to peg the washing out before it will be upon me, eager to sink its razor-sharp beak into my bare toes.
This is Chuck, my foster tortoise. That’s right, a tortoise, supposedly the most lumbering, docile, lowest-of-the low maintenance pets imaginable. Or so I had assumed when I offered him shelter a few summers ago, not thinking for a minute that he would repay my kindness with violence and fear.
Chuck, Julia Lawrence’s foster tortoise, is proving to be quite the handful – biting at people’s toes
He has the cats running scared. No one can step foot into the garden with impunity any more. I can forget any notion of sunbathing: this creature is the most effective anti-wrinkle remedy I have had, for he has taken all the joy out of relaxing outside.
‘Is that bloody thing out of hibernation?’ is a question frequently asked when RSVPs come back. if any pre-dinner drinks in the garden are planned, guests have to be warned to bring wellingtons.
Brick walls, wire cages, cardboard boxes, plastic buckets: he can get over them, dig or smash his way out of them or annihilate them all.
Picture a tank on a battlefield, crashing its way through barbed wire, bomb craters and trenches. When Chuck has you in his sights, nothing will stand in the way of his desire to hurt you.
As with all problem children, there is a sad story behind Chuck’s beastly behaviour. For a long time I thought I could remedy it with love, sunshine and a plentiful lettuce patch. He is the victim of a broken home: a friend was going through a divorce and the pets were shared out. She got the dog, he got the tortoise and then promptly moved to a flat without a garden.
After a few months of watching Chuck trying to smash his way out of a 34in glass reptile house, my friend asked whether I would look after him for a while, knowing that I already had a gentle, sweet, female Horsefield tortoise called Georgie, whom we had raised from a baby and a very welcome seventh birthday present for my now 15-year-old son Joe.
‘Of course,’ I replied, ‘he’ll be no bother.’ And on the whole, tortoises aren’t much bother; that is why they have been so popular a pet here for hundreds of years.
In 2010, archaeologists found a 130-year-old tortoise bone, alongside the remains of several dogs and cats, in the grounds of Stafford Castle, suggesting tortoises had already slow-marched their way into the hearts of British families in the late 19th century.
Chuck the totoise is so violent that even the cats are running scared of his next attack
Another friend’s parents had a pet shop in the Seventies and he remembers them arriving in stinking, straw-filled crates. He had to pick out the live ones from the rotting corpses.
A European import ban on Mediterranean tortoises was imposed in 1984, allowing only tortoises bred in captivity to be traded. An illegal trade in them still lines traffickers’ pockets.
They are not cheap: Georgie cost us £120 when we bought her, barely the size of a teacup, in 2007, and that was before we had bought all the gear: the houses (inside and out) and heat and UV lamps (tortoises are reptiles and unable to maintain their body temperature).
We were responsible owners and did our research: we learned that Georgie should not hibernate for more than eight weeks and that was only after she was a sturdy enough age and weight to endure the winter in a picnic basket in the shed.
Her diet has consisted of a variety of weeds and greens, as advised by the experts. She developed a particular liking for Waitrose baby gem lettuce (the Tesco value iceberg just didn’t hit the spot). We also cultivated a colourful patch of dandelions, thistles and clover, on which she could graze at will.
There was nothing more enjoyable on a sunny afternoon than lying on the grass, feeding her buttercups and watching her stretch her strange, prehistoric, leathery neck out to capture the sun’s heat.
Tortoises are not beautiful or cuddly but they are peaceful, gentle company and, most importantly, do not require daily walks or flea treatment.
Then came Chuck. Maybe I should have read more into the fact that my friend’s children weren’t too distraught to see him go. They had bought him off a friend and no one was sure of his age (a website trawl and a weigh-in on the kitchen scales estimated him to be about eight or ten).
To start with, all seemed well; he spent rainy days in a nice, roomy tray inside and summer days basking in sun traps and retreating to a straw-lined hutch when the sun dipped beneath the rooftops. More importantly, he didn’t seem interested in Georgie, although they lived together nicely, often stretching their necks out in a strange embrace.
In December, once the temperature dipped consistently below 10C, Chuck was starved for a few weeks to empty his digestive tract (this is what you are meant to do), then tucked up with a few shredded copies of the Daily Mail in a box in the shed for the long winter sleep. We woke him in March with a nice warm bath and some young spinach leaves. And then the trouble began. A very different Chuck had awoken, one that seemed intent on violence.
Poor Georgie copped it first. He would pin her into a corner and smash his shell into hers.
He would bite her legs, often drawing blood, and chase her round the garden, trying to rape her, until we created separate areas for them, with bricks, sunk in concrete, that he could not dig or smash through.
But in transpires Julia’s ankles are being mistaken for a female tortoise – and it is all part of the mating routine
With Georgie safe, he fixed me in his sights. He sniffed out exposed flesh and bit it hard, often drawing blood.
It is very painful, like being pecked by a parrot. He now has a go at anything: lawnmowers, pigeons, cats and footballs. Male, female; he’s not fussy.
He has even turned carnivorous. He chanced upon a chicken wing on the grass on Sunday, after I gave it to the cat after lunch.
Watching this supposed vegetarian gleefully ripping lumps of flesh from the bone was very disturbing.
People find it hilarious when I talk about Chuck. Ankles are his favourite, but he has bitten me on the bottom through a deckchair. From dawn to dusk, he will chase, ram, chase, butt and bite. I sought the advice of Jane Williams, an Essex-based animal counsellor, who has a degree in tortoise husbandry and welfare from Southampton University and who also runs a tortoise sanctuary.
Her explanation was simple: under my loving care and attention Chuck had grown into a healthy, happy rapist.
‘The butting and biting is part of the mating ritual,’ she says. ‘It is to fence the female into a corner and make her withdraw her legs so he can mount her.
‘When he sees you on the lawn, he sees sex. Males are notorious: I’ve seen some wake from hibernation with sex the first thing on their mind. They don’t even want to eat.
‘Tortoises are not social creatures. Many live alone. The only way to get some peace is to isolate him.’
She also tells me Chuck will probably live to well over 70. That is 60 more years of violence and I don’t think I can cope.
I learned this week that my friend has made an offer on a house.
A quick check of the estate agent website revealed a rather nice back garden, so I think I know what (or rather who) I will be giving him for a house- warming present..