Good Natured in St. Charles: Open gate tempts tortoise into slow chase

Ding Dong, a pet sulcata tortoise, took himself on a little walkabout recently, when a gate was accidentally left open. Sulcatas, also known as African spurred tortoises, are native to grasslands and savannas in northern Africa.

Sometimes the allure of the open road exerts a force too strong to ignore.

Jack Kerouac couldn’t resist it, nor could John Steinbeck or William Least Heat-Moon.

Or Ding Dong.

You might be familiar with the stories told by any or all of the former, but I’m willing to bet almost none of you have been lucky enough to spend time with the latter, a charming soul I was privileged to meet as his on-the-road odyssey ended – shortly after it began – a few weeks ago.

I got involved in Ding Dong’s adventure via a phone call from our park safety supervisor Tim Timberlake, who had been made aware of a large tortoise roaming in a neighborhood on the east side of town. Knowing how people tend to let unwanted pets go in our parks, and that I have a thing for turtles, Tim asked if I’d go lend a hand.

Of course, I said yes.

Ding Dong, a pet sulcata tortoise, took himself on a little walkabout recently, when a gate was accidentally left open. Sulcatas, also known as African spurred tortoises, are native to grasslands and savannas in northern Africa.

The area where the tortoise was roaming was about two miles from my house and just up the street from one of our riverside parks. I wasn’t very familiar with the location, but as it turns out, it didn’t matter. As I drove up the street, I saw a small gathering of people, a police car and the tortoise, who looked for all the world like a tan-colored boulder strolling across a lawn.

None of the neighbors recognized the animal, but all were concerned with his welfare, so after establishing myself as an employee of the park district and not some random tortoise-napper, I offered to take him to my backyard, where he could bide his time until his owner or a rescue group could be found. The police officer graciously lifted the big boy into my car, and off we went.

During the drive back to my house, the gravity of the responsibility I’d just accepted started to sink in. Having some familiarity with large tortoises, I know their strength, their need for space, and their dietary requirements – many of which are similar to those of a cow. I’m also acquainted with the product of those dietary needs; if you know what I mean by cow pie, then you are, too.

I didn’t really have too much time to ponder the situation, as I was due at a board meeting in less than an hour. Instead, I needed to focus on the task at hand: getting the handsome, 70-pound wanderer from my car to my fenced-in yard.

I’d love to say that my core strength and fitness were at a level where toting 70 pounds of tortoise about 70 feet was no big deal. Instead though, let’s just say I was immensely relieved to have been able to move him from the hatch down to the ground without injury – to either of us.

From there, I thought maybe I could drag him along by grasping inside his rear shell and tugging him backwards. But after getting my fingers pinched not once but twice as he drew in his bulky legs – no doubt a form of chelonian protest – I realized I needed a Plan B.

Having seen car floor mats used to haul snapping turtles off busy roads, I got a heavy tarp out of the garage and dragged the tortoise onto it. But this method, it turns out, was even less appealing to my shelled friend. He repeatedly pitched himself off the tarp, each time turning his body in the opposite direction of where we needed to go.

Sweat began to seep through my Tuesday-go-to-meetin’ clothes as I scratched my head and tried desperately to come up with a Plan C. With the clock ticking, I bent down, slapped my knees and said, in a tone I hoped the tortoise found appealing, “Come ‘ere, boy!”

And you know what? It worked!

One step at a time, with repeated urgings along the way, the tortoise and I made our way toward the backyard. Whatever circumstance had led this big guy to hit the road, he clearly was not averse to hanging out with humans.

Onward we trudged, deliberately placing one foot in front of the other, step after step, at speeds approaching – if I did the math right – 0.08 mph. Once inside the gate, I headed toward the outdoor spigot to fill a water dish I had handy, while the tortoise bolted toward the salad bar that is my untamed backyard.

With the tortie set for the time being, I closed the gate, hopped in the car and made it to the board room with a few minutes to spare. I was just biting into a piece of pizza (a major perk of attending board meetings), when my phone rang. The police department had passed along my number to the tortoise’s owner!

I learned that her name is Leah, the tortoise is Ding Dong, and that a utility worker had accidentally left a gate open. I gave Leah directions to my house, including how to work the finicky gate latch, so she could pick up her adventurous pal as soon as possible, then went back to my pizza. Though happy that the big guy had a home, I was just a little sad I wasn’t going to get a chance to say goodbye.

Next week: We’ll learn more about Centrochelys sulcata, the sulcata or African spurred tortoise, and why seeing them here in northern Illinois isn’t as uncommon as you might think.

• Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at