Finding Tortoises

January 18, 2010 | Leave a Comment

Category: Auto-Biography

The rat returned to the backyard this October.  This time she made the tortoise house her home.  It was hibernation time for the box turtles and so they were doing their autumn disappearing act.  They were digging down into the dirt beneath their multilevel home, a wood structure inside an about 6′ X 4′ X 4′ pen.  Rat, in the meantime, was collecting dirt and making dirt mounds to seal off the open walls, making a nest, I figured.

The tortoise house is right below the bird feeder.  I was not feeling comfortable with the rat coming out in the daytime to eat birdseed with the squirrels.  It finally got to the point where my opening up the back door of our row house and stepping outside was not driving the rat back into the house.  Like the squirrels, Rat continued to eat the birdseed.

Our home and yard are 17 feet wide.  It was only a matter of time before the row house neighbors noticed we were housing and feeding rats.  Our yards are all contiguous.

So, I tried putting out mouse poison and stood and watched.  I had to watch because if a squirrel approached the poison, I had to shoo the squirrel away and remove it.  Rat approached the poison, sniffed it and tore off like a rocket in the other direction.  So much for poison.

A couple tortoises emerged briefly to get some sun on the last days before hibernation.  I grabbed them and placed them indoors in the bathtub.  I had a new plan.  On a relatively warm day, I would dig down into the turtle pen, remove the house, find the two other newly hibernating tortoises, bring them inside and clean the whole pen out, making it inhospitable for the rat.  This winter the tortoises would not hibernate.  I’d take them back out in the spring, after putting their house back, with the rat long gone.

On an October Sunday, I opened up the tortoise pen and started digging.  I was not thrilled by the idea of finding an annoyed rat or rat babies.  I made my movements in a fashion that would allow my jumping backward on short notice.

We’ve had tortoises for almost 20 years.  Yoshi and Filbert are at least that old.  Four, maybe five tortoises have died over that time.  One, a very young one from the pet store, might have escaped through the chain link cage.  Two died out of hibernation and we buried them.  Two never emerged in the spring.

Digging out the tortoise home to make the rat go away, I found the shells of Gertrude and Crag.  Both had chosen to dig down into the dirt at a relatively uninsulated location inside the pen that was outside their wood home.  This no doubt killed them.  Every autumn, I jam leaves into the first and second floor of their wood structure, generating extra insulation for their sleep.  Then I fill the whole 6′ X 4′ X 4′ pen with leaves to better insulate the whole pen and the house.  These tortoises are all from the Missouri/Arkansas area, which has warmer winters.  They dig down only about 8″.  We have to cover them up with more insulation because they are not indigenous Illinois tortoises with the genetic memory to dig below the deeper frost line.

It was very odd to see old friends in the form of shells only.  Bodies were long gone.  Crag’s shell was beginning to fragment.

After about a half hour of digging, I lifted the house out.  No rat or rat babies.  There was Harms Woody and Archimedes sleeping.  I washed them off in the kitchen sink and placed them with their buddies in the bathtub.

Everybody is awake in winter.  Odd for this bunch that likes to sleep.  We fetch crickets and worms from the pet store, two of their favorite foods, along with bananas and strawberries.  I’m thinking of buying some newcomers, some three-toed box turtles in complimentary pairs.  Half my life I’ve been accompanied by box turtles.  Though eggs get laid, never have I seen a baby.

The rat seems gone. I haven’t seen her for a couple months.  Raccoons live beneath the porch on the other side of us.  Possums visit.  Bunnies often bounce by.  Chipmunks hang out with the squirrels beneath the feeder.  Last spring a coyote wandered into the backyard.

I look forward to spring.  The tortoises, who love the sunlight, will like it, too.


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