About halfway through the summer of 2012, I arrived home from a holiday in Malta with my boyfriend to find that my parents had spotted a news bulletin about something called the Norfolk Tortoise Club. The report said that the charity had a serious influx of tortoises needing homes and that they needed people to come forward to take home a tortoise and care for it.
Now a bit of background about my family, in years gone by we have had a cat and a rabbit as pets while growing up. But my dad was never a fan of either, growing up in Mauritius he understood animals as food, as a way of making a living, or useless. Mauritians didn’t tend to keep pets because with so many poor families it was silly to try to feed another mouth. As a result of never being around animals throughout the majority of his life, he was always rather unsure around them, particularly if it was dogs or cats that would rub against you or jump up. So imagine my surprise when they started talking about getting a tortoise!
Meet Mr T. I made contact with the charity and they put me directly in contact with a woman who covered the West Norfolk area, Donna Stocking. We chatted over email and she explained the criteria for the animals’ living space, the equipment needed and what type of care the creature would need. I emailed her pictures of our living space and garden where the tortoise would be kept and she emailed back with some suggestions and mentioned that she was overrun with tortoises needing homes at that point. She asked to fast-track our particular case because she had one that needed a home and one-on-one care because he had been mistreated and fed the wrong foods.
Our hearts instantly melted and we were invited to come and see him, and several others to decide whether we wanted to take on a tortoise that might need more care, or a slightly more normal one. We were very excited to see him, and couldn’t believe it when we popped out to her house in the middle of nowhere, where more than a 100 tortoises of all shapes and sizes – from newborns to massive shells – were roaming around her garden. It was an incredible sight and we could barely believe our eyes. She had an amazing set-up having built every enclosure with her husband’s help and creating unique homes for them all that suited their individual needs. The ladies roamed around one area where they were munching on fruit in groups and would come up to see the nail polish on your toes, thinking they were flower petals. The males were split up to stop them fighting, but they were keen to try and escape and explore.
The minute we saw our little tortoise, with his ridged and bumpy shell (caused by being fed the wrong foods) and his bent and out-of-shape tail, we fell in love. He was adorable and we just couldn’t refuse. Donna was thrilled and instantly set us up with calcium, vitamins, bedding and reams of advice about diet, heating and enclosures. She asked us to call her if we had any problems and insisted she would be making a home visit within weeks to check up on him and make sure he was being cared for correctly, and to advise us on any changes. He was ours! We took him home that day and all sat out in the garden – it was the hottest day of the summer and Mr T was loving it. He was racing around the garden in the glorious sunshine and we were in fits of laughter watching him. It was a brilliant day and you could tell Mr T was really enjoying checking out his new home.
We chose the name Mr T, originally as a joke, but it soon stuck. Especially when we realised that this little tortoise had a bit of an attitude problem and liked to barge his way through anything, a lot like Mr T in his tank. After a few months of feeding him up, it was time to put him into hibernation so a bit nervously we did. But after attending one of the hibernation talks held by the charity, we felt a bit more confident and set up his box with shredded paper and layers of newspaper. We made all the preparations and packed him up for three months, but made sure to check and weight him every week. He did start to lose weight towards the end so I made a snap decision to take him out, but he stayed in for a full three months which was great for what was possibly his first hibernation.
This summer, we built him an amazing run outside where he can explore, trundle about and eat all his favourite foods – he particularly likes the weeds we have planted, strawberries plants and the leaves from runner bean plants. We let him out in the rest of the garden as well, but this is a safe place where we can leave him outside all day while we are out. We’ve been working on feeding him up with all the right things to help build his strength ready for hibernation. We put him away today, and this is the start of a long three months until we can get him out in the spring. Of course, we will still check him every week, but it’s not the same as having him out. I’m already looking forward to those hazy summer days of sunbathing with him once more.
The beauty of the Norfolk Tortoise Club is that they still own Mr T and we just foster him. That way, with tortoises living as long as they do, there is always a back-up plan in case the owners become ill or are forced to move. Instead of being dumped, or turfed out on the street, the tortoise can always be given back to the charity and given a brand new home. Fostering Mr T is one of the best things we have ever done and it is so rewarding to care for him, particularly after knowing that he was rescued after not being cared for correctly. I would seriously recommend it to anyone who seriously thinks they have the space and the time to care for what is a very undemanding pet.