Knoxville Zoo tortoises get new winter home thanks to a little girl and her Mayor dad

Knoxville Zoo tortoises get new winter home thanks to a little girl and her Mayor dad

This is a story about some giant tortoises, a young girl and her daddy the mayor.

The tortoises are the Knoxville Zoo’s long-lived, large-growing Aldabran tortoises, particularly the two called Al and Tex. At the zoo for decades, 525-pound Al atortoise_2_27928396_ver1.0_640_480nd 350-pound Tex are the park’s biggest and oldest of the species. Nobody’s certain how old they are. Al could be 100 or 120 plus; Tex is about 100.

The cold-blooded reptiles can’t winter outdoors in East Tennessee. For decades Al and Tex spent fall and winter inside a small area in the zoo’s reptile house. Since 2011 they’ve been trucked to warm winter quarters at Zoo Atlanta, returning each spring to Knoxville.

Both zoos hoped Al’s and Tex’s time in Georgia would result in their reproducing with Atlanta’s female tortoises, but that never happened. Last year Al wore out his Atlanta welcome. He was too big, too boisterous and too unsuccessfully amorous to get a return invitation.

Tortoise_6_27928395_ver1.0_640_480Where Al goes, Tex goes. That brought the zoo a dilemma about where to warmly, safely winter 875 pounds of hay-chewing tortoises. The animals’ past indoor Knoxville space was repurposed for other animals with part of that area now public exhibit space. The park faced finding a “semi-permanent or permanent” new home for Al and Tex as it determined how to build them a new winter home, said Zoo Assistant Director of Marketing Tina Rolen.

“The idea broke our hearts to consider a Knoxville Zoo without Al and Tex,” Rolen said. “But happily we never got to that point because of Mayor Burchett and the county.”

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett learned of the reptiles’ Atlanta treks when he visited the park earlier this year with daughter Isabel. Isabel, 8, is a fan of the tortoises. Burchett, who married Isabel’s mother Kelly Kimball in July 2014, is a fan of Isabel.
“My little girl is a nature fan,” Burchett said. “She loves everything on God’s green Earth and every person, it seems. She really likes the reptiles … She really took a liking to those turtles.”

Burchett heard from zoo herpetologist Heather Debord that Al and Text had been trucking back and forth to Atlanta. “I don’t even like to drive to Nashville,” he remembered.

Then Isabel asked Burchett if he couldn’t help keep the animals home. “She said, ‘Can’t you do something?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know’,” Burchett recalled.
So he asked zoo officials to get him “some numbers” as to what they needed to keep Tex and Al in Knoxville year-round. What they needed they got — a nice, warm greenhouse. The county gave the zoo $42,002 from the hotel/motel tax fund, said Knox County Finance Officer Chris Caldwell. Money from that fund is designated to promote tourism and related economic activity in Knox County. “It was a one-time money situation, and I’m glad we were able to do it,” Burchett said.


The zoo exhibit design crew set up the greenhouse frame, built corral walls, a pond and did other interior work, said Michael Ogle, the zoo’s bird and herpetology curator. They recycled metal rails from another area of the zoo for the turtle corrals. An outside crew
put up greenhouse plastic and did the needed electrical work.

About half the 2,400-square-foot off-exhibit greenhouse belongs to the tortoises. The park’s large tropical plants and trees overwinter in the rest.

Al and Tex share the largest corral, with a pool and sand-covered floor, with three smaller, younger Aldabran tortoises. At the zoo since 2006, each of those reptiles is 15 to 20 years old and weighs 70 to 80 pounds.

Three smaller habitats were built for three other rare species, including radiated tortoises and Burmese star tortoises. Rare Arakan Forest tortoises arrive from South Carolina’s Riverbanks Zoo later this winter.

The greenhouse is kept tortoise toasty at 80 degrees-plus, making it a sometimes sweaty place for humans. But, said Ogle, “it makes for a pretty happy giant tortoise.”