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Published: Friday, 5/23/2014 - Updated: 1 year ago

Pittsburgh Zoo receives 2 tortoises

Toledo Zoo director says he’d ‘love to have’ one here as well

A Galapagos tortoise, rear, weighing in at 163 pounds, and his female companion, front, weighing 122 pounds, crane their necks in their enclosure. A Galapagos tortoise, rear, weighing in at 163 pounds, and his female companion, front, weighing 122 pounds, crane their necks in their enclosure.

PITTSBURGH — Two Galapagos tortoises are the giant-shelled stars of a new Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium exhibit.

The tortoises are on loan from the Allentown. Pa., Zoo and will call Pittsburgh home through Labor Day.

The exhibit is a coup for Pittsburgh not only because it showcases the zoo’s first Galapagos tortoises but also because the species is endangered, with only 22,000 left in the wild, said the zoo’s curator of mammals, Ken Kaemmerer.

“They’re neat animals,” Mr. Kaemmerer said. “They actually move around quite a bit, though it always seems like a massive effort. They can survive without food or water for a year and a half because reptile metabolism is so slow.”

Years ago, the Toledo Zoo was home to a much-loved Galapagos tortoise named Galopy, who lived in the zoo’s Wonder Valley to the delight of thousands of area children, many of whom were photographed atop him.

But after 32 years, then-zoo director William Dennler sent the tortoise to the San Diego Zoo in 1983, at the age of roughly 60. At the time, zoo officials said the tortoise was transferred for the benefit of Galopy and the breed. San Diego had more than two dozen tortoises at the time.

After controversy was raised about the situation, Toledo Zoo officials claimed that Galopy died within a few years. But it was not possible to independently verify that claim. Galapagos tortoises have an average life span of more than 100 years and some have been known to live more than 150 years.

Mr. Dennler is still living on River Road in Maumee and is running a consulting business for “strategic planning and envisioning,” according to his Web site.

The Toledo Zoo’s current executive director, Jeff Sailer, said he “would love to have” another giant tortoise, such as a Galapagos or Aldabra. Mr. Sailer said he was not aware of Pittsburgh’s temporary exhibit.

“We don’t have the facilities for them. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t have them in the future,” he said. “We’re not against it. It’s just that there’s been other things that we’ve been working on.”

John Green, 4, rear, hangs onto his brother Tige, 2, as they ride Galopy, the Galapagos Island tortoise in the Toledo Zoo’s Wonder Valley section in 1972. John Green, 4, rear, hangs onto his brother Tige, 2, as they ride Galopy, the Galapagos Island tortoise in the Toledo Zoo’s Wonder Valley section in 1972.
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The zoo has been focused on projects such as welcoming a saltwater crocodile, which arrived last year, and other new exhibits, including those for penguins, flamingos, and parakeets that open today. Bringing in tortoises would require funding and space.

“You just don’t build a facility for these animals out of nothing,” Mr. Sailer said.

He had no way to compare the Toledo Zoo to Pittsburgh because he’s never visited the Pennsylvania zoo, but he pointed out that the Toledo Zoo was just named the best in the United States, grabbing the top spot in USA Today Travel’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice contest.

Back in Pittsburgh, the two tortoises are already attracting attention.

Melinda Boling’s second-grade class at Burgettstown Elementary is wrapping up a unit on animals — complete with a book about a tortoise who helped a hippo learn to eat. Wednesday, her students oohed and aahed over the two live tortoises.

“They’re awesome, and so big,” said Garrett Yazevac, 8.

His classmate Charlotte Mongole wanted to touch one, to feel the hard shell on the 160-pound reptile.

At the spry age of 22, the tortoises are already massive. But with a life expectancy of 100 years, they could grow as large as 5 or 6 feet in length and up to 500 pounds.

The tortoise diet is diverse. In addition to hay and tortoise chow, the reptiles munch on grass and feast on fruits, including bananas and watermelon. This week, they lay in mud puddles, with bunches of leaves and grass fixed in their beaks.

The tortoises, one male and one female, are still unnamed, Mr. Kaemmerer said, though the zoo is open to suggestions: “If somebody wants to give us names, sure.”

Zoo-goers jumped at the opportunity.

Zhona Johnson, 7, suggested “Mila” for the female and “Plank” for the male. Plank because of the hard, flat appearance of the tortoise shell.

Made of bone and attached to the rib cage, the shell is the largest part of the reptile’s body.

Despite popular belief, it is not solid but rather knitted together by air-filled, honeycomb-like chambers, the zoo said.

Jake Fugett, 20, would call them “Franklin” and “Bastoise.”

“They’re cute, with their little necks sticking out,” Mr. Fugett said. “Just chilling there with grass in their mouths.”

Mr. Kaemmerer said the Pittsburgh Zoo has a handful of new exhibits up its sleeve, including a Komodo dragon set to appear next week and a cheetah exhibit later in the summer.

The zoo is in the initial stages of a five-year project that will bring a slew of new attractions to the grounds, he said.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Isaac Stanley-Becker is a reporter for the Post-Gazette. Vanessa McCray is a reporter for The Blade.

Contact Isaac Stanley-Becker at: istanley-becker@post-gazette.com, or 412-263-3775.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.

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