I've written in this blog about many wild animals found in the vicinity of my house in Mérida centro. These tortugas, tortoises, are not "wild neighbors" in exactly the same sense as the many other creatures I've written about. That's because while the others freely come and go about their business, I brought these particular animals here, and due to the fact that the back garden is walled in, the tortoises can't move on if they get the notion. However they are not domesticated and (although I haven't verified this) I have been told they are native to the region.
These wild neighbors are timid. If I catch them in the open, crossing the concrete walk by the pool for instance, they stay completely still for a moment as if determining the danger of the situation and calculating carefully what to do. Although sometimes in this circumstance they freeze in position, more often they make for shelter in a comical herky-jerky run, or at least what amounts to running in the tortoise world.
Other times I stumble across them chewing slowly on herbs, drinking water that has puddled in a curled leaf, or ambling slowly and deliberately amongst the flowers. Caught in an area with cover, they may duck heads inside shells and keep still.
Although they are land animals, once in awhile I put them in the pool for a swim. Heads held high and with the tops of their shells barely breaking the surface, they can swim faster than they run on land. They can't get out of the pool on their own, so I keep an eye on them, and make these excursions brief.
A friend gave me these two tortoises three or four years ago. Someone had given him a pair way back, and they proliferated so successfully in his large back yard that he found it necessary to thin out the population. I've heard of other folks in Mérida who also keep a few of these animals.
Tortoises are absolutely the perfect pets for people who are busy. Although I occasionally throw them fruit and vegetable scraps or hand-feed them a banana, they seem to survive well on what they can forage in the garden. Once in awhile when tomatoes are ripe, I discover a low-hanging fruit has been hollowed out from below, and I suspect these characters are the culprits.
During the dry season the tortoises may not appear for a month or two, but they always show up again sooner or later. I don't believe that they actually hibernate, but have found them burrowed under leafy debris in cool corners and at the edges of large rocks. I assume that this their natural response to lack of moisture and a smaller food supply.
In the summer and fall, when it rains nearly every day, the tortoises are most active. I don't see them on a daily basis, but often find evidence of their activity in the form of chewed plants or trails of muddy footprints left across paved areas of the patio.
I have tried unsuccessfully to determine the species of these tortoises, and whether I have a breeding pair. I've had them close to four years now and have seen no evidence of breeding activity. I have observed that one has grown noticeably larger than the other, and that they are social, sticking together most of the time.
On a couple of occasions I also have noticed what looks like cooperative behavior on their part. When confronted with an obstacle too high to climb easily alone, one climbs onto the other and then pushes itself up on its hind legs atop the shell for a boost. It's probable that this happens just by chance because the two are usually together and not due to intentional cooperation, but it's interesting anyhow.
And they bite. Not aggressively, but if you pick one up or are feeding them by hand, you need to watch your fingers, because when they bite, they hang on. The first and only time I got caught this way, it took me a couple of minutes to get my finger back. The skin wasn't broken, but I was left with a light bruise that was tender for a couple of days.
For pets that always run away and don't express affection, these tortoises have done a pretty thorough job of capturing my heart. I expect to enjoy the company of these wild neighbors for a good long time.
Other posts about Wild Neighbors, animals who share the urban environment of Mérida with us: