My Pet Tortoise Essay

You may wonder: What makes a 42-pound African spur tortoise well-suited for work as a therapy pet?

In part, the same qualities that you'd look for in a therapy dog or cat or rabbit, like being calm and friendly, and pretty impervious to outside stimuli.

Wasabi the therapy tortoise has some unique advantages, to boot.

"She's a distraction. It's not every day you see a giant turtle in a dress," says owner Lisa Chicarella .

Wasabi wasn't born into life as a well-dressed mental health professional.

She was a timid 8-year-old when she came to Chicarella about 8 years ago, after being given up by her first owner, a reptile collector. She didn't leave her shell for nearly two weeks, back then.

"I gave her the name Wasabi. She was so shy I wanted to give her a name that said she was hot stuff," says Chicarella. "Little did I know how well she would live up to it."

Indeed, she's grown into her name: Wasabi demands attention; she loves affection and likes to sit and stare out the window of their Maryland home, which can be disconcerting for passers-by.

When she's annoyed, Wasabi will shove furniture all over the house. She likes going for walks. She will often climb into Chicarella's lap for snuggles or to munch on pizza crusts.

"Wasabi can be a real force of nature. Wasabi wants what she wants when she wants it," says Chicarella.

The therapy pet gig came about, in 2010, by sad accident. Chicarella had a dog named Chief, who was in the process of becoming certified as a therapy pet, when he unexpectedly died.

At the time, Chicarella got talking to Vicki Rummel, then executive director of Pets on Wheels, now with Therapy Pets Unlimited.

"I mentioned it's a shame that my tortoise can't be a therapy pet, she'd be good at it," says Chicarella. "Vicki said, 'why can't she?' The rest is history."

"Wasabi is a cool tortoise. She is friendly, She gets attention and seems to love the attention. She is an asset to our organization," says Rummel (who adds that she doesn't personally know any other therapy tortoises, though "we have therapy cats. We had Humphrey, an angora rabbit but he recently passed away").

These days, Wasabi visits with folks in nursing homes and schools, and is a "regular" at the Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore. At all these places, Wasabi spreads comfort and delight, and provokes a lot of reactions like "OMG!! Look at the size of that TURTLE!! Why is it wearing a dress?"

Wasabi is also something of a reptile ambassador. People's automatic interest in her helps spread awareness about these often-misunderstood, ecologically threatened animals.

They're often thought of as moving rocks -- but in fact tortoises like Wasabi grow to be very large, live for decades and are very smart.

"She's not a goldfish in a shell. She is an intelligent animal. She can learn. She has and shows emotions," says Chicarella. "People underestimate the intelligence of tortoises. I am not saying she's going to be doing long division anytime soon but she knows her name and usually comes when she's called."

But of course not all tortoises wear dresses. Wasabi began wearing her fancy clothes for practical reasons. That first winter as a working tortoise, Chicarella got her bundled up in some heat wraps, secured by a diaper.

"You can imagine the remarks we got. A giant turtle in a diaper. So, my friend made her a dress to cover the diaper," says Chicarella.

Turns out the outfits were a hit. Chicarella decided to keep them on her tortoise year-round. She began ordering them from specialty tailors, who make bespoke frocks (and the occasional other sort of costume).

"Sad truth is, she has more dresses than I do. And hers are custom made," says Chicarella.

Life with a special animal like this one can sometimes require accommodation. Chicarella is even thinking of moving to a one-story house, so that Wasabi no longer needs to climb up and down stairs.

But Wasabi cheers people up with her very unusual presence. She helps folks take their minds off things.

"She gives people the opportunity to forget, even if it's just for a little while," Chicarella says. "She's my girl and I wouldn't trade her for the world."

Get in touch at arin.greenwood@huffingtonpost.com if you know a well-dressed tortoise, or have another animal story to share!

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May 23 is World Turtle Day. Celebrate the ultimate slow and steady land reptile with these fun facts about tortoises.

1. A tortoise is a turtle, but a turtle isn't a tortoise.

A turtle is any shelled reptile belonging to the order Chelonii. The term "tortoise" is more specific, referring to terrestrial turtles. (Of course, there's always an exception. In this case, the land-dwelling box turtle.) Tortoises are usually herbivorous and can't swim.

One easy way to tell 'em apart: look at their feet and shells. Water turtles have flippers or webbed feet with long claws, and their shells are flatter and more streamlined. Tortoises have stubby, elephant-like feet and heavier, domed shells.

2. A group of tortoises is called a creep.

But you won't see a creep very often. (Not that kind, anyway.) Tortoises are solitary roamers. Some mother tortoises are protective of their nests, but they don't care for their young after they hatch.

3. Tortoises inspired the ancient Roman military.

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During seiges, soldiers would get in testudo formation, named after the Latin word for tortoise. The men formed rows and held shields in front or above them to completely shelter the unit.

4. "Testudinal" means "pertaining to or resembling a tortoise or tortoise shell."

Go ahead. Compliment your friend's testudinal sunglasses.

5. Tortoises have an exoskeleton AND an endoskeleton.

The shell has three main parts: the top carapace, the bottom plastron, and the bridge that fuses these pieces together. You can't see them, but every tortoise has ribs, a collar bone, and a spine inside its shell.

6. The scales on the carapace are called scutes.

Made of the same keratin found in fingernails and hooves, scutes protect the bony plates of the shell from injury and infection. The growth rings around scutes can be counted to determine the approximate age of wild tortoises.

7. The lighter the shell, the warmer the origin.

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Tortoises from hot places tend to have lighter-colored shells than tortoises from cooler areas. The light tan sulcata originates from the southern part of the Sahara Desert.

8. They can't swim, but tortoises can hold their breath for a long time.

They're extremely tolerant of carbon dioxide. It's a good thing—tortoises have to empty their lungs before they can go into their shells. You'll often hear them exhale when they're startled and decide to hide.

9. And yes, their shells are sensitive to touch.

Shells have nerve endings, so tortoises can feel every rub, pet, or scratch ... and sometimes they love it. Note: This delightful creature is a turtle, not a tortoise.

10. Sulcatas are one of the most popular pet tortoises—and one of the biggest.

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Get ready to move to the suburbs and amend your will. Sulcatas are the third largest tortoise species in the world, behind the Galapagos and Aldabra giant tortoise. They can live more than 100 years and weigh up to 200 pounds.

11. Charles Darwin and Steve Irwin cared for the same tortoise, a Galapagos gal named Harriet.

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Darwin is said to have collected and named Harriet back in 1835. She was sent to England and eventually wound up at Australia Zoo, founded by Steve Irwin's parents. She finally passed on in 2006, the same year as the Crocodile Hunter's fatal encounter with a stingray.

12. Tortoises reach sexual maturity with size, not age.

It's a boy, err, uhh... You won't be able to tell a tortoise's sex until it reaches a certain size, which varies by breed. The most obvious tell is the plastron—for mating purposes, it's flatter on females and curved on males. Males also tend to be larger and have longer tails.

If you're a tortoise owner who prefers surprises, just wait for your pet to come out of his or her shell. Males will eventually display their private parts while soaking. And it's not uncommon for females to lay eggs, even without a mate to fertilize them.

13. They're the ultimate conservationists.

Tortoises can extract water and nutrients from even the most paltry bites. Their hindgut system works like a double digestive tract, separating water from their waste. When water's scarce, they'll hang on to water waste and simply excrete the urates, which look like white toothpaste.

14. They can smell with their throats.

Like other reptiles, tortoises detect the faintest of smells with the vomeronasal organ, or Jacobson's Organ, on the roof of their mouths. Instead of flicking their tongues, they pump their throats to circulate air through the nose and around the mouth.

15. Tortoises won the space race.

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In 1968, the Soviet Union's Zond 5 spacecraft was the first to circle the moon and return safely to Earth. The tortoises on board lost about 10 percent of their body weight, but were still ready for a meal when they touched down. That's one giant step for tortoisekind.

16. They might be smarter than we thought.

Slow and steady won the race in 2006 when scientist Anna Wilkinson placed a tortoise and rat in the same maze. The reptile was better at navigating the maze to find food, making sure it didn't revisit the same area twice. When cognitive landmarks were removed for a second trial, the tortoise systematically visited each section of the maze to find food. The rat wasn't as methodical. Previous research hasn't shown tortoises to be so clever, though: Wilkinson suspects cold lab temperatures are to blame. Later research found that tortoises use gaze-following to learn from the behavior of other animals.

All images courtesy of Thinkstock unless otherwise stated. 

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