I haven’t featured too many reptiles on my calendar over the years, but ever since these guys returned to the Toronto Zoo in 2018, they have captured my heart. The three Aldabra tortoises – Queenie, Malila, and Rasputin – were first featured at our Zoo in 1975, moving on to the Forth Worth Zoo in 1999. Obviously, I must have seen them a few times in the first quarter-century they were here, but I don’t really recall. For one thing, I didn’t tend to spend a lot of time in the pavilions when I visited the Zoo before I met Sarah. I would often visit in small groups of friends and hit the “big-ticket” animals; I’ve only really been the “Zen traveller” I am now for the past decade or so. If I had understood the impact just visiting an animal and being present in the moment would have on my life when I was a younger man, there is very little doubt my path would have been entirely different. But I didn’t, it wasn’t, and I am where I am now, which is fine with me because at least I got here eventually.
Well, this is starting out so melancholy. I apologize. It’s clearly the pandemic talking.
Speaking of that, I’m afraid I don’t have nearly as much information to give you about the history of these giants at the Toronto Zoo as I would have liked. Ordinarily, when preparing for a post like this, I would visit the animals and their Keepers and see what I could draw out of them to pass along to all of you. Not being able to do that right at the moment, I have had to rely on some online digging, which has proven to be not quite as rewarding. I did manage to find a post on the Zoo’s Facebook page from April of 2018: a “Throwback Thursday” piece on when the Aldabras were first at the Zoo. If you click on the photo above (I don’t know when that was taken, but I swear I know the Keeper in it… with a lot less hair now) it will take you to that post. My “Name Book” lists their DOBs as “unknown,” so I cannot tell you with certainty how old they are, other than they are obviously at least 45. I believe the estimate is early-to-mid-50s for all of them, which means they likely are only about 1/3 of the way through their lives!
So let’s move on to some things I can tell you! Currently there are two living species of giant tortoises: the Aldabra and the Galápagos. (The fact of the matter is it’s a bit more complicated, what with subspecies and such; check the Wiki page for “Giant tortoise” to cover this in more detail.) The Galápagos species is slightly larger than the Aldabra and can be found distributed among the various islands of the Galápagos archipelago in Ecuador. The Aldabras live mainly on the Aldabra atoll, which is found in the Seychelles island group in the Indian Ocean. This coral atoll was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, which significantly improved this species’ chances for survival, and the IUCN has listed them as Vulnerable.
During the winter, the tortoises share a huge exhibit in the African Rainforest Pavilion with the ring-tailed lemurs and a grey-necked crown crane. It’s a wonderful mixed-species exhibit, something I hope we create more of down the road, and I have been trying for over two years to catch a lemur riding a tortoise, to no avail. I’ve heard it has happened , but not that I have seen. Not giving up hope, though: it sure looked imminent on one or two occasions! The temperature in the exhibit is very carefully monitored as the tortoises, being reptiles, are ectotherms (cold-blooded) and cannot regulate their own body temperatures like the lemurs and crane can. There are a couple of hot zones, several heaters (which the lemurs also like to take advantage of, often in a “lemur ball”), and a shallow pond at the southeast corner that a tortoise will occasionally amble over to and then sit in for hours.
Outside, they have a spectacular exhibit just south of the main entrance to the pavilion. There is a sun shelter (the cave you see in this photo), a pond, some interesting nooks and crannies to explore, and lots and lots of very tasty grass! This is an awesome place to view these amazing creatures, as the railing around the exhibit is very comfortable to lean on and quite close to the tortoises. As for the reptiles themselves, they can be quite precocious and will very often interact with their visitors – especially when called by name. As with virtually every animal I encounter at our Zoo and others, they are considerably smarter than we would think to give them credit for. They also – Rasputin in particular – can emit a sound that reminds me very much of an elderly person who has discovered something disappointing in their food. Now, I cannot for the life of me find a video to let you hear that sound, even though I am completely certain that one exists and I have seen it. I’ve checked every source I can think of but have come up empty. So if you run into me in the future, please ask me to do my impression. It’s actually not bad! Or, if you come across a video where any of the Aldabras is making the sound, please let me know. In the meantime, I do hope you enjoy this alternative video!
The Aldabra tortoises were one of the featured animals of the Zoo’s very-well-received Wild Encounters which premiered last summer. Sarah and I waited until it was warm enough for the tortoises to be out in their summer home before we booked our visit and it was an amazing experience. In the first photo on this page below Rasputin’s calendar shot, I am in the outdoor cave with him, rubbing his shell. In the shot at left, Sarah and I are taking turns interacting with Malila in the same way and, as you can see by her stance, she is loving it. Turtles and tortoises have surprisingly sensitive shells; well, I say “surprisingly” because many people probably think of those shells as if they are surrounding armour, but they are fused directly to the animals and grow with them from hatching, so they have as complex a network of nerves as really any land animal’s back. So when we “skritched” Malila on her shell near her tail, she immediately raised herself off the ground, swayed a little bit, and made very contented noises. We were able to do this for quite a while before she finally tired of it and toddled off in the general direction of the nearby pond. When the Zoo is once again at a point where they are offering the Wild Encounters, I highly recommend this one. They are all terrific, but there is something a little extra-special for me in interacting directly with the amazing creatures at the Zoo.
Sarah, for her part, remembers the tortoises very well from their first years in Toronto. At left is a photo of her visiting them at the age of 12 (Rasputin is in the foreground behind the glass), coupled with a shot of her patting Rasputin last summer on the Wild Encounter, which I would guess is not something she imagined happening in the first picture! He, Queenie, and Malila would all be similar sizes and weights today as they were back then, with Rasputin weighing in at over 186 kg, Queenie at 75.8 kg, and Malila at 69.3 kg. Actually, I imagine they are a bit bigger now than in that first shot, as they would only have been in their early 20s then and they don’t reach sexual maturity until about 30 years old.
Well, long-time followers will realize we’ve reached the part in my blog post where I ordinarily will post a collage of other photos and say goodbye, but I’m going to add a couple of extra treats this time. I have uncovered a few more videos of these guys – some are mine, some are from the Zoo, and one is from another source – and I will embed them all here now for you to view, or not, as you see fit. The very last one will show how the Keepers (in this case, Jenn) target train the tortoises; after that I will tell you something cool about the transport of them last summer.
Last summer, when I saw the Aldabras outside for their first time that year, I also happened to encounter their Keeper, Jenn. She was practically beaming with pride as she filled me in on how the transfer went between the indoor and outdoor exhibits for the three of them. Apparently, they had some success with Queenie and Rasputin… to be honest, I don’t remember the specific details much more than that because it was the next part that was the real story: Jenn was able to lead Malila with the target ball all the way from the indoor exhibit, outside along the walking path, and into the outdoor exhibit! Those of you who are familiar with the layout of the African Rainforest Pavilion will realize what a distance that is; for the rest of you, all I can say is that is an incredible feat for only the second year they worked together. I was very much looking forward to trying to watch that parade this summer, but I don’t know if they’ll already be moved by the time we are allowed to walk around the Zoo again as visitors. On the grand scale of disappointments during the pandemic – even just from a Zoo perspective – it doesn’t rank particularly high, but it does add to the load. If I do get to see it, you better believe there’ll be video which I will prominently display on YouTube and my Grumpy Penguin page on Facebook.
Speaking of my Grumpy Penguin Facebook page: I realize that there might be quite a few people reading this post who have never visited my website before, and are here because they found my FB page when I posted photos of a Scenic Safari trip at the Zoo on a Toronto Zoo “fan page” on Facebook. If this includes you, thank you for coming! I have been making these posts once or twice a month for the past few years (always on or very close to the first of the month) as kind of a “value added” feature for a calendar I have sold. I invite you to go back through my older posts on here and, if you like any of the subjects, please take a look at them. Some of them have a little more in-depth information; as I mentioned earlier, it’s been a bit tougher to create the material I really want with much of my access to the Zoo cut off for the time being. And, frankly, some of the animals I’ve featured I just happen to have had more experience with over the years and will have more stories to tell. In any event, no matter whether you are a first-timer or an early adopter, thanks for reading along with me today! Please “tune in again” next month for an extremely cute little guy who really only began to make his appearance around the same time last summer. See you there, and please: stay safe and healthy.
Oh, all right, Sarah! Here you go. Geez…. 😉