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My Favorite Pet of All Time Was Baxter, an African Sulcata Tortoise

Mike Aguilera/SeaWorld San Diego via Getty Images

In the tortoise world, the biggest is the Galapagos tortoise and then the next biggest is the African Sulcata tortoise. They can get boulder size. I bought one in 1999 right after my divorce and I had him for 11 years. A pet store ordered a baby one for $200.

When it arrived the pet store brought it to me in a plastic container that looked like a margarine tub and when I cracked the lid he was about the size of a baseball! We named him Baxter.

He lived in an aquarium in our kitchen until he got too big and then I put him in a kiddie pool in my kitchen. He grew and grew and one spring day I decided it was time to take him outside and get some sunshine. I carried the kiddie pool out to the backyard and went back in the house. When I went to check on him, the dog was chewing on his shell like it was a bone.

A turtle shell is not a bone, it’s living tissue and he was bleeding. Two of the octagon bumps on his shell were inverted.

I called a bunch of places and ended up on the phone with the head of the reptile department at the San Diego Zoo — I kid you not.

She told me how to clean the wound and keep it bandaged. Every time I added medicine I had to re-wrap Baxter in gauze. He looked like a fluffy snowball.

In case you were wondering, Baxter did know I was his owner. When other people went out to pet him he was indifferent, but I went out he ran to me. You’d imagine tortoises don’t run, but they can.

These tortoises can live as long as people, so we used to joke about who would get him when I died. He took a lot of maintenance and had a very specific diet, so the rule was, I would give it to the son whose wife I least liked!

But Baxter only grew to age 11. He was about 20 lbs, so about the size of a beach ball. He caught a respiratory infection. I couldn’t leave him outside when it was cooler than 60 degrees, and I think one autumn I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the temperature. I gave him shots twice a day in his leg, and he started to get better, but then one day he took a nose dive and ended up dying.

I still miss him. He was a fun pet.

When he got sick I didn’t have to call the San Diego Zoo again because I found a local expert. She said his shell was really healthy, which meant we’d taken good care of him. Do you know what else she told us?

Baxter was a female!


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