It is a fact of life that although a tortoise may first endear itself to you through its attractive looks, its rarity, or its intrinsic value, over time, your favourite always becomes the one who shows 'character'. This is the tortoise which seems to have a certain spark, certain cunning, intelligence or odd habits which stand them out in the herd.
Having kept tortoises and turtles for many years now, I find that there is no better species of tortoise from which characters are derived than that of the American Box Turtle (Terrapene spp.). Active and alert hunters in the wild, they easily adapt their secretive ways into a persistent charm offensive against their captors. Most boisterous and visibly noticeable of all the box turtles is the Gulf Coast Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina major) from Texas and the Mexican coastline.
My first encounter with this particular species was in a small pet and reptile shop in the Coventry area in 1986. Typical of establishments of that time, the rabbits and dog food were downstairs, whilst the reptiles were reached via a narrow set of stairs leading to the familiar hot and humid room full of vivaria. Looking for additions to my small but disparate band of three toed box turtles (Terrapene carolina triunguis), I viewed the half dozen inhabitants of the 'box turtle tank' with disappointment. Larger than the largest three-toed, they had dark angular shells, obscured patterning on the carapaces, and the flared rear marginal scutes which often indicate great age in other species- and four toes on the back legs. Chips and scars on their shells indicated their wild pedigree. Priced at £45 each, half as much again as I expected to pay for a triunguis, I was finally put off by the owner's attempts to offer me more choice- he opened a door to reveal over 40 more sitting around on the bare floor of an unlit storeroom. I know that box turtles love to hide in dark places, but their body language told clearly of shock and stress- scuttling wildly around, or sitting tightly shut up, withdrawn from the world. I still think of those wretched chaps, and pray that most of them 'made it' to good and caring homes.
Some years later, in the autumn of 1995 I was contacted by a couple in Bristol, who had purchased two box turtles during the summer, believing them to be garden tortoises. They were now sick. Their new owners considered their health paramount, and offered them to us to keep. In return we offered them a couple of young Hermann's males, and came away with a pair of Gulf Coast Boxes- J.Y. and Tessie. J.Y. proved to be very ill, near death when we collected him. Treatment for flagellates, dehydration and starvation followed, and he made a slow recovery. Barely a few months went by, and we received another phone call about an 'odd' tortoise needing rehoming, this time from Milton Keynes. 'Jerry' , another T. c. major had been living as an ordinary tortoise for three years, and it was only her enthusiasm for cooked chicken which had educated her owner sufficiently to ensure her survival. Again, she was not in very good condition, and took some nursing, and some visits to 'Uncle Robin' (the vet) to ensure her recovery.
These three we set up in an eight feet by two feet vivarium, with plenty of water, heat, and above all, humidity. They were fed our usual box mix of shredded vegetables mixed with low fat catmeat. 10% volume of calcium is added, along with the Ace-high vitamin preparation (as with terrapins, vitamin A deficiency is a real problem in this species). The following summer saw the Gulf Coast boxes in their outdoor pen- deep grass, waterfall, bark, sun, shade and swimming pool. They were joined in this idyll by a dark and weather-beaten stranger. 'Chism' had been found wandering up Chiswick high street, and was handed in to a local pet store. The owner was a keen Ornate Box keeper, and offered an exchange. Having none to give, I did however know of one for sale, and a deal was struck. This new Gulf Coast box was typical of those I had seen all those years earlier- black carapace, broken shell, crooked beak, hypnotic pale red eyes and all the arrogance of his silver screen namesake. He settled in quickly, -mating with both females within the hour! His presence also seemed to perk up the worryingly quiet J.Y., who crowned his summer with some mating efforts of his own. Sadly, it was to be his last year in the sunshine.
The spring of 1997 saw the BCG AGM being held at London Zoo. There was, of course, a tour of the reptile house in the afternoon, and I made a direct path for the display vivarium holding some Terrapene coahuila (the rarest species of American box turtle- these were progeny from wild stock being held at Jersey Zoo). To my surprise sitting in with these mainly aquatic turtles was a Gulf Coast female. I mentioned this to Esther Wenham, and was delighted that, having shown some interest in the species, the zoo would be keen to re-home her to us (after the appropriate forms had been signed etc). 'Hella', as we called her was similar to 'J.Y.', with a golden yellow carapace darkened by brown patterns and marks. Active and strong, she made an immediate impact by escaping from her box on the way home! When collecting her however, we were asked to identify another odd soul in the reptile house- a large flat, dark, box turtle, with an indented plastron, a red eye, and four toes on each rear foot. It looked like a smaller version of 'Chism', and I identified it on this basis- Gulf Coast Male. A few months later this turtle came home with us as well. Hella had already laid a couple of infertile eggs, and was strutting her stuff with confidence. The new small dark handsome one, now named 'Dorian' proved a very much tamer reptile, and alarmingly seemed content to submit to regular rape from 'Chism' in a very placid fashion. Our eyebrows were raised…well it takes all sorts.
That Autumn, eggs were laid in the vivarium which proved to be fertile. 'Hella' was praised and fussed over. Three weeks later we were witness to more egg laying amongst the Gulf Coasts….. to my chagrin, and my wife's amusement the perpetrator was without doubt… 'Dorian' (promptly renamed 'Doria'). These eggs proved fertile, and viable, hatching at 30 C some 60 days later. The two hatchlings from "Hella's clutch" looked suspiciously similar. In all that year, 'Doria' laid 4 clutches during her breeding season, giving a total of 13 hatchlings. 'Hella' has not laid since, and we suspect that 'hers' were in fact a fifth 'Doria' clutch. That same winter, amidst all this new life, J.Y. fought a grim battle against a deep seated bone infection, enduring two operations, losing a quarter of his plastron and stoically enduring the anti-biotic laden needle on countless occasions. He gave up life one night, quietly, without notice, just as he seemed to be recovering from his latest 'op'.
The following season (into the year 2000) saw 'Doria' give life to another 14 hatchlings, in four clutches, all the spitting image of their mother (30 C gives females in box turtles). She was joined in the Gulf coast group by another male- 'Pogo' from a Poole Sealife Centre (a recommendation for re-home by London Zoo- 'Pogo' was beating up all his small Three Toed box friends and being a right big bully). 'Pogo' has the same carapace colouring as J.Y. had, but he has the battered shell seemingly typical of males of this species. 'Chism' has put him in his place- second in the pecking order.
Finally, The wheel went full circle in the summer of 2000, with us finally discovering another Gulf Coast box turtle in a reptile shop, the first for 14 years. 'Millie', a dun coloured female, and long term captive promptly laid two infertile eggs upon arrival at home, and has eaten her socks off ever since. Tame and inquisitive, she shows none of those awful signs of stress we saw all those years ago. She had settled long ago into captivity, which I sadly suspect, so few were able to do. As I write this, we are expecting 'Doria's first clutch of 2001 to hatch at any time. She and 'Chism', so similar in looks, have proved the Gulf Coast's similarity to the Spur Thighed tortoise in one respect- the difficulty of breeding a reptile whose range is diverse, but whose population is divided into so many small, isolated pockets. Unless specimens from the same area are matched, then results will be poor. How 'Chism' and 'Doria' came to finally meet, against all the odds, is the stuff of tortoise legend, and quite beyond the ken of man.