“My [giant tortoises] are my spirit animals,” said Chie Eltagon about her pet reptiles. “They wake up, eat, poop, and sleep all day, every day.”
Eltagon and her family live in Antipolo, Philippines with two adult and 15 baby giant tortoises. The biggest, Po, weighs around 77 pounds and is 24 inches long at just 8 years old.
In the last few years, more people around the world have started housing giant tortoises as pets. Owners say they’re affectionate, easy to care for, and cute, but some animal rights advocates caution against keeping these wild animals in homes.
Anthony Menendez rescues, breeds, and sells giant tortoises in Florida. He told VICE that social media likely contributed to the rising popularity of having giant tortoises as pets.
Similar photos and videos are also widespread on Instagram accounts, like Menendez’s.
“Simple, short videos of me feeding my tortoises, collecting their eggs, hatching out the babies… have [collectively] gotten millions of views,” Menendez said about his posts on social media. He added that many of his viewers eventually buy giant tortoises and other reptiles for themselves.
There are several species of giant tortoises, but among the most popular are Galápagos tortoises, which can be found on the Galápagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador; Aldabra tortoises, which originate from Seychelles Island, off the coast of Kenya; and sulcatas, which are present in the Sahel Zone in Africa.
According to Menendez, Galápagos and Aldabra tortoises can weigh over 500 pounds when fully grown, while sulcata tortoises can weigh up to over 100 pounds. For reference, the average male Labrador Retriever weighs between 60 to 80 pounds. Eltagon said that giant tortoises grow rapidly for the first five to 10 years of their life, and then slowly for decades after that.
While the idea of having a massive, prehistoric-looking animal as a pet might seem novel to others, Eltagon compared them to a more common household animal.
“It’s like having a dog,” said Eltagon, “but with shells.”
She added that whenever one of her giant tortoises sees her, he goes for a mandatory shell scratch, much like a dog would go for a belly rub.
“They are my stress relievers,” Eltagon said. “After doing something exhausting, I just go to their pen. I feel relaxed by just staring at them while they’re munching their food.”
Menendez described his tortoises as “goofy and friendly,” explaining how they follow him around, nip at his shoes—especially when the shoes are red—and climb over each other, even when they could easily walk around.
While all the giant tortoise owners VICE spoke to said that they acquired their pets in accordance with the laws and regulations of their countries, some animal rights organizations don’t think anybody should have wild animals, like tortoises, as pets at all.
“Giant tortoises are not pets,” Heidi Marquez-Caguioa, the program director of the non-profit animal welfare organization Animal Kingdom Foundation in the Philippines, told VICE. She said that giant tortoises are wild animals that should be kept in their natural habitats.
“They should not be kept indoors,” Marquez-Caguioa said. “Even if they are kept outdoors, their enclosures usually do not mimic that [of] the wild.”
Anna Cabrera, Executive Director of the non-profit organization The Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) explained that, as pets, giant tortoises could be exposed to spatial limitations, cold temperatures, and a lack of social interaction with other tortoises that could prevent them from expressing their natural behaviors and could cause them mental and emotional anguish.
“It’s a bit selfish to keep them for our own private viewing,” she said.
Cabrera added that one of the primary arguments against keeping giant tortoises as pets is that it drives the demand for animals captured in the wild, leading to dwindling numbers and the risk of extinction. Giant tortoise owners might say that buying pets that were legally bred in captivity mitigates these risks, but Cabrera thinks that puts focus on the wrong things.
“If we study these creatures’ lives in the wild—the way they are closely-knit to their family members, the way that they love their freedom… then I think the effort will go into saving their habitat and the environment,” she said.
Giant tortoises have specific needs and the owners VICE spoke to said that they are well aware of this. Menendez’s giant tortoises, for example, stay in large outdoor enclosures.
“They are too heavy to lift and be taken anywhere,” Alessadro Beccaria from Lugano, Switzerland, told VICE. Beccaria has a 30-year-old Galápagos tortoise, which he calls “The Galápagos.”
Instead of taking her for a walk, Beccaria said he simply lets his giant tortoise follow him around her enclosure.
As with any other animal, everything giant tortoises eat has to go out the other end, too. Since they eat so much, they also poop a lot. “Having a giant tortoise is like having a pooping machine,” Eltagon said.
Aside from that, their size means they have power. “They can be very strong and destructive,” Menendez said. According to him, giant tortoises can dislodge furniture if they get stuck in them, break things like sprinklers without even noticing, and can get very determined to climb over or get under household objects.
They can even smash concrete walls, said Eltagon. “When they are curious about something, they chew, stamp on, or wreck it,” she said.
In temperate countries, having giant tortoises also means needing heated and illuminated indoor spaces where they can live in the cold months. Beccaria said that this is the hardest and most expensive task in keeping what other owners might describe as an otherwise relatively low-maintenance pet.
But Cabrera said that instead of trying to create safe but artificial spaces for wild animals, like giant tortoises in human homes, people should instead put more effort into preserving these animals’ natural habitats.
“Preserving their habitats is equivalent also to our own survival,” she said, noting the interconnectedness of animals, humans, and nature, and how conserving wild environments means better lives for wild animals as well as people.
The fact that giant tortoises can live anywhere from 70 to 150 years old poses the romantic idea of having a lifelong companion, but this could be too long of a commitment for some.
“It is devastating to see [giant] tortoises outliving their owners,” said Marquez-Caguioa.
The CBC reported that some people eventually become incapable of caring for their giant tortoises due to financial, spatial, or health constraints, among others. Some owners also have difficulty finding zoos or reserves that could rehome their pets and resort to releasing the animals into the wild.
According to the non-profit organization American Tortoise Rescue, which provides protection to turtles and tortoises, abandoned giant tortoises could experience a slow death by freezing and starving.
“Other risks involve accidents, tortoises [that end] up missing as they roam around, and [the] risk of being ran over is high,” added Marquez-Caguioa.
Beccaria is well aware of his responsibilities and understands that his commitment runs a lifetime, and beyond.
“You need to train your grandchildren,” he said. “And warn them that they will need to pass that training to their own grandchildren.”
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