The Case Of The Choking Tortoise


I’ve not updated you on Tonka for a while.  Tonka, for those of you who don’t know, is the immigrant Greek Marginated tortoise who, we suspect, travelled all the way from his homeland after the devastating tortoise wars of 1965, made it over the channel by hiding in someone’s suitcase, then landed up in our garden.  Anyway – he’s been up and about for some time now this year but he had an extra long hibernation over winter.

About four months. This is because had we taken him out of his fridge earlier he would have had to live in the building site that was our kitchen. And we didn’t want to stir old and traumatic memories. So we woke him when the kitchen was completed.

It took him about a week to wake up. Sarah, smart as usual, compared that with me. I was, of course, worried throughout this week, as I always am when he emerges from hibernation. Will he eat/drink/wee/poo/be able to see/recognise me? In the event he did all six eventually although I still suspect that ‘recognise’ is more to do with knowing that my fingers represent food, and my foot represents the enemy. So he bites my finger sufficiently hard to draw blood, and head butts my foot.

It also seemed that his beak had grown considerably while he was asleep. Sarah pointed out that our fingernails and hair grow while we’re asleep so why shouldn’t his? (Nails, not hair. He hasn’t got any hair). I countered – cleverly I thought – that hibernation was not the same as sleep. His entire system shuts down to almost dead. So nothing would grow, surely. Sarah hit back immediately by pointing out that his beak was definitely longer and in any case it needed filing.

This is not a job for the faint hearted. However – and I am loathe to admit this – Sarah invented a brilliant way of doing it without holding him upside down, pulling his neck or anything else distressing for a tortoise. She feeds him using the emery board as a spoon. Tricky, but it works gradually. He pulls food and rounded end of emery board into his mouth, clamps it shut and then gets his beak filed as the board is withdrawn. I think we might put this up on a veterinary on-line advice notice board.

However, I then nearly killed him by trying to feed him with some new mixture purporting to be the perfect tortoise food. Pellets made of flowers and seeds and so on. The label said ‘do not over-water’ and ideally ‘feed dry’. These are quite big pellets. Tonka has been hand fed a slightly mushy mixture along with dandelions, which is all he will eat. Anyway, I put one of these dampened but not dissolved pellets in with the rest and he started to choke! I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen a tortoise choke. It’s very alarming. His mouth opens and shuts wide, his tongue sticks right out, he makes a sort of gagging gesture, and rubs his leg on the side of his head.  Sarah said he wasn’t choking as he was still breathing he just had food stuck in his throat which was entirely different – but for dramatic effect can you please go with me on this one – I thought he was CHOKING.

IMG_2884 I was completely paralysed with horror. I rubbed water on his mouth. He was still alive and gagging less so I wondered if whatever it was had been swallowed. I tried a tiny bit of soft mushy food. Same result – gag, rub, gasp, tongue. I started to research vets who specialize in tortoises, wondering if it was at all possible to anaesthetize a tortoise, cut open his throat, remove a piece of stuck food, sew him up again, and hope he’d still be alive.

I tried to make him drink, but to no avail. Eventually Sarah gave him a bath and for some reason, which still makes me cross, he stuck his head under water and had a long drink. Which seemed to do the trick.

The long and the short of this is, if you have a tortoise with an overgrown beak, and who then starts to choke to death, don’t ask me. Get Sarah along.


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