For his entire life, Javy Gonzalez has always loved having interesting pets. Monitor lizards, bearded dragons, and even snakes caught in the backyard as a kid. There’s something about reptiles that Gonzalez has always been inexplicably drawn to.
"They are so Jurassic-looking and cool,” Gonzalez said, standing in the backyard of his south Forsyth home on Monday afternoon.
But in 2015, Gonzalez decided his family was ready for a new addition, a challenging animal that would be more like a member of the family than a mere pet — so he set about researching how to own a Sulcata tortoise (the African Spurred tortoise), the third-largest species of tortoise in the world.
"I've had turtles all my life," he said. "And I love animals, so when I first saw the Sulcatas I was like, ‘I gotta have one,’ and I ended up with three."
Sulcata tortoises, according to Gonzalez, can grow up to 200 pounds and can live up to 100 years if they are well cared for, making them a lifetime or sometimes a generational commitment for any perspective owner.
But all of these things were music to Gonzalez’s ears as he learned at how beautiful, interesting and peaceful the Sulcata Tortoise can be.
"They are beautiful animals. Sometimes I'll just sit there on the bench and watch them eat," he said, pointing to the swing just feet from his backyard tortoise enclosure.
In April 2015, his family adopted two Sulcata tortoises, juvenile females that were about the size of a silver dollar, he said.
A few months later, as the Gonzalez family settled into the role of tortoise owners, naming the two tiny creatures Thea and Dorothy, Javy was contacted about a third, older tortoise that had been neglected by its previous owners and needed a good home.
Gonzalez didn’t think twice, he said. He named it Bessie and gave it a home beside its younger, smaller “sisters.”
Eventually, Gonzalez discovered Bessie was actually a male tortoise, so he changed the tortoise’s name to Stanley.
Over the last four years, the three tortoises have gone through huge growth spurts. Thea and Dorothy are nearly a foot in length. Stanley, the largest of the three, is now more than 16 inches long, Gonzalez said, and appears to weigh about 50 pounds.
As he watched the three tortoises graze on grass and wander around his back yard, Gonzalez said that the three animals act like big dogs with shells sometimes: they come to him when called, chase a ball in the summer and enjoy neck or shell scratches.
All three will double or triple in size as they mature, Gonzalez said, but they’ll likely stay their peaceful placid selves their whole lives.
Gonzalez has learned a ton about being a good tortoise owner. He recommends that anyone considering the Sulcata tortoise should make sure they do their homework first.
"You gotta have space, you've gotta know their care and you must do research," he said.
First and foremost, he says that tortoises require a large, high-walled enclosure for their home, which not everyone has room for but is vital for the tortoise’s safety and good health.
Every day, he brings all three of the shelled creatures out to roam the back yard and graze, but most of the time, they need to spend their time in their enclosure, where they are safe from predators and can’t wander off. Gonzalez built his where an above-ground pool used to be.
Still, Stanley has made a few escape attempts.
"They are escape artists, and they are known to just knock down things, move furniture,” he said. “And you can't keep them in a chain-link fence, because as long as they keep seeing forward, they want to keep going forward. They'll push and push and push and end up hurting themselves."
As the three tortoises grow larger, Gonzalez wants to move
his family to a home with more space for the animals. And maybe someday, if
things work out, Gonzalez wants to add more tortoises to create a sanctuary
that could welcome visitors for educational and therapy opportunities.
Beyond the requirements of their enclosure and day-to-day environment, Gonzalez said that as a non-native species the tortoises need a lot of help regulating their bodies to the temperature changes in Georgia that aren’t part of their natural biology.
In the winter, Gonzalez has to take the tortoises’ temperatures using a laser temperature gauge, keep them warm, and bring them inside when it gets too cold. In the summer, Gonzalez keeps the tortoises hydrated and at the right humidity by wetting down their enclosure and oiling their shells with coconut oil.
The good thing about the tortoises, he said, is when it comes to feeding.
He said that he can let the three tortoises loose in his back yard, and they will act like tiny sentient lawnmowers eating up every scrap of loose vegetation in the surrounding area, with diet supplements of greens and other grasses that Gonzalez buys.
"Seventy percent of their diet is actually weeds and grasses; they get fruits and greens as a treat," he said. "They are really neat animals to have.”
After all that care and attention, he said that one of the main things you have to think about is whether you can sign on to care for an animal that will probably outlive you and who will care for it after you die.
Even though his boys Noah and Lukas are still young, Gonzalez said that they’ve already talked about who will take care of the tortoises when Gonzalez and his wife, Eileen, pass. Both are on board to carry on Gonzalez’s love for the three animals.
“My kids love those tortoises,” he said. “They told me one day, ‘When you die, this will be the closest thing I have to you.’ When I heard that from them at such a young age, it shocked me … They can pass them down from generation to generation.”