Home | Field studies and notes | Tortoise Observations – Feisty Terrier No Match for African Spurred (Spur –Thighed) Tortoise, Geochelone sulcata

Tortoise Observations – Feisty Terrier No Match for African Spurred (Spur –Thighed) Tortoise, Geochelone sulcata


Sulcata TortoiseThe responsive ways of North Africa’s massive Spurred Tortoise are well known to private and professional turtle keepers.  Inquisitive and alert, these arid country natives are quick to become possessive of their territories and, sometimes, owners.  They adjust rapidly to changes in their environments – two 80 pounders that I kept in a half-acre outdoor exhibit at NYC’s Prospect Park Zoo never ceased to amaze me, despite having been under my daily observation for years.


A few years ago, my mother kept an abandoned 30-pound male free-ranging in her yard until a suitable home could be found for him.  He was adopted by a friend, and in short order took over his yard – digging furiously to get at the dog next store, bullying the owner’s dog and ramming or ignoring anyone save his owner.  He never failed to appear when his owner came home, and walked over to sit near him at every opportunity.


In June of this year, a neighbor’s terrier-mix (an annoying, yappy beast, I might add!) got into the tortoise’s yard and, in true terrier fashion, made right for what looked like an easy target.  He managed to bite the tortoise’s front leg – at which point the leg was withdrawn into the shell.  As you may know, Spurred Tortoises have thickly-scaled limbs and immense strength, and use their legs as a shield against predators.  Evolving in a habitat with much larger and fiercer predators that a mere terrier, the tortoise easily pinned the animal between its massive foreleg and shell, and there it remained.


Efforts by several strong men failed to straighten the tortoise’s leg and, in fact, seemed to strengthen his resolve.  Water was poured on the animals, also to no avail.  I was unable to get to the scene, and thought an injection of a muscle-relaxer might be required.  However, I first suggested that the animals, being carefully supported, be submerged in a child’s wading pool.  Thankfully, this did the trick and the tortoise released his wrestler’s “scissor lock”.


Despite having been gnawed on for over an hour, the tortoise’s leg was unmarked.  The terrier, I must say, seemed eager to do battle once again as soon as he cleared the water from his nose – but his owner had more sense!



You can read about the natural history of the African Spurred Tortoise at:




  1. avatar

    I have my boy Cassie. He 11 and I was flood out in 2014. So my god cats and Cassie moved but had let Cassie stay with my daughter and grand kids they been really great with him but now weather getting I need to bring him home new place. But kids &: son-n-law is so good with him ..I looking for one that needs a home they know how to care for a one and is set up .. My Cassie is about 75 LB. PLEASE call or write if u have one need a great home

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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