Ellis’s nails were tickling my palm as he trotted around on my hand. The tortoise was tiny. I had imagined a behemoth creature, like the ones you see washed up on the beach in those animal documentaries. And it’s always depressing because they’re dead and the British guy is telling you how bad their babies’ chances are of surviving (I learned later that these were turtles and I was stupid for not knowing the difference). But this little guy wasn’t like that. Ellis, who is about the size of a Nalgene cap, was full of life.
I had been searching for Ellis for months now, so finding him brought me a sense of utter joy. The idea for the tortoise story was initially brought up in our first Carletonian meeting of the term. It had an air of mystery to it. The facts were this: someone heard a rumor that a tortoise was being shipped to Carleton through the post office.
As a freshman trying to prove myself, I thought that taking this hard-hitting investigative story would be a great way to burst on the scene. My first inclination was that if there truly was a tortoise being shipped here, it must be for some sort of scientific observation.
On September 25th, I emailed faculty member Shawn Galdeen, who is in charge of maintaining the biology lab. He responded later that day writing, "Uhhhhhhh….do we have a tortoise? I have NO IDEA what he’s talking about." He forwarded my message around the department until the third recipient, Matt Rand, an associate biology professor, offered a lead. Well, not quite a lead. More like a doubtful shake of the head. He wrote that he had also heard the rumor that a tortoise, in a box labeled "tortoise" had arrived for someone on campus. He was skeptical. "I suspect a possible hoax or mislabeled or misread box. No one I know in the profession, who ships tortoises, ever marks the box "tortoise." Shipping boxes are usually marked "live harmless wildlife" or "harmless reptiles" (Lacy Act requirement)," he wrote in an email.
There was nothing but dead ends for me in the Bio department. But maybe the people at the Carleton post office could offer me some information. I talked to Locke Perkins, who is in charge of the operation. He told me there had been some supplies shipped in for the tortoise and that he was expecting the reptile later that week. "And who is the tortoise being shipped to?" I naively asked. He couldn’t tell me. This was privileged information. So I left disheartened.
I tried to coax the tortoise’s whereabouts from postal workers I saw around campus. They kept referring to some nonsense about a contract with the US government and being prosecuted for federal crimes for divulging that kind of information. Edward Snowden would probably know but I couldn’t reach him for comment. So my breakthrough story went cold.
It wasn’t until 3 or 4 weeks later that a tantalizing clue emerged. I was hanging out in a friend’s room and in passing she said something about a girl who had a tortoise in her dorm. I said "What?!" and she said "Yeah…" and I said, "Are you serious? That’s the tortoise I’ve been looking for!" And then she looked at me sideways.
A couple days after that, a close friend recounted a story about a girl who had taken a tortoise out of her pocket during a canoe trip. My friend gave me a name, and I sent an email, and soon enough I was on my way to a clandestine rendezvous with the tortoise.
I’ve had to change the name of the owner to protect her identity. Let’s call her Harriet. (Residential policy states that it is forbidden to have a tortoise in a dorm room; the crime is punishable with tortoise eviction. The only pets allowed in rooms are fish, and their movements are restricted to a tank that is 20 gallons or under.)
I asked her about the prospect of the tortoise being taken away. Harriet said, "It’s a tortoise. He’s sanitary. I make sure I take good care of him and his environment. And everyone who’s met him likes him a lot."
She wanted a pet to keep her company at college, so she went shopping. She first looked at leopard geckos but their personalities were too jumpy. So, she sprang for a small, 2 month old Hermann’s tortoise.
Hermann’s tortoises can live to be 70 or 80 years old, she said. Harriet looks forward to growing old with him. Ellis’s habitat is modest yet comfortable. Harriet has created a nice sanctuary in a neon green plastic container. Ellis has a UV light shining on him as well as a heat lamp. He has a little hollowed out log to sleep in and fresh food and water everyday. His diet consists of fruits and vegetables. Every other day he is lucky enough to be served a gourmet "tortoise pellet," which is finished with a sprinkle of calcium powder.
Shipping Ellis to Carleton had been the nerve-racking part. "I didn’t sleep the night before," Harriet said. "I was so worried he wasn’t going to make it."
It is apparent that she and Ellis have quite a connection. She smiles broadly while chatting about him and holds him with gentle care.
Harriet tries to spend some time with Ellis everyday. When I asked her to describe Ellis’s personality, she said, "Well, he likes eating bananas."