Animal Moments

Rescuing Henry

(Image of Geochelone carbonaria from

Henry, the red-footed tortoise (Geochelone carbonaria), lives in the rain-forest exhibit in the amphibian center at the zoo. He has the run of about half the available space (roughly 6 by 30 feet), with plenty of tropical foliage for cover, a shallow pond, a heat lamp, rocks, and pans of fresh greens. Henry used to have a female companion, but she died after becoming egg-bound. (Relieving the tortoise surgically would have been nigh inpossible, since any such procedure would require cutting under either the upper shell (carapace) or lower shell (plastron) and then somehow reattaching it.) So now Henry shares his forest habitat with Homer the sloth, an elderly catfish, a fresh-water sting ray, and any number of small rain-forest frogs.


The last few times I have been in the rain forest, Henry has been quite active. He moves surprisingly fast around his habitat and appears eager to explore new places it’s hard for a tortoise to reach. A few weeks ago, Henry was trying to climb a tree! He was up on his rear legs scrabbling at the trunk with his front feet when he fell over on his back and lay there wriggling all his legs, apparently helpless. Rather than wait for him to right himself, I went to fetch the keeper. (Neither the visitors nor I wanted to watch Henry struggling to turn himself over, but docents are not allowed to handle or touch the animals.) The keeper put on latex gloves, went out to the rain forest, stepped into the habitat (separated by a low fence from the visitors’ boardwalk), picked Henry up in both hands, gave him a look-over, and set him down right side up.


Last week I was again docenting in the amphibian building. Another docent came hurrying out of the rain-forest exhibit to tell me that Henry had gotten flipped over again, and asking if I knew what to do.  I went into the ‘back stage’ area, but there was nary a keeper to be found.  (I later heard that there was a major medical incident in another exhibit; perhaps all the keepers were called away for that.)


I made a command decision to help Henry myself. I did exactly what I saw the keeper do: I found a pair of latex gloves, put them on, went into the rain forest, and carefully stepped over the fence onto a wet rock as close as I could to where Henry was struggling on his back in the dirt. I bent over and gingerly picked him up in both hands. Henry was surprisingly heavy, very dense, and about the size of a large soup tureen. I turned him over and put him down carefully on his feet. He looked just fine, so I stepped back over the fence. The on-lookers were delighted, and several of them thanked me for rescuing the tortoise.


Later I told the keeper what I had done, and she commended me, saying that it was  exactly right. It gave me a big thrill to help one of our animals!


By the way, another keeper confirmed my own suspicion that Henry is especially active these days because he’s looking for a partner. And it seems that the search for another female red-footed tortoise (or possibly two) is under way. Hang in there, Henry!


Posted on 7 July, 2008