Cousin’s pet piqued interest

Published 1:17 am Saturday, January 18, 2014

Some years back when I was a reporter, I did some research on the gopher turtle. I had long been interested in this reptile, because of my cousin, Harold, who considered one his pet. As a youngster, I often spent my summers visiting him and his parents in St. Andrews, Fla. They lived about a block from a lake and six or eight blocks from a bay. Those bodies of water always captivated Harold to the point he just could not stay away.

He was always sneaking off to wade and fish in the lake. As he got older, he ventured to the bay. He had orders not to go to the water without permission, but when he returned home with muddy clothes or had to admit to losing a shoe in the water, he knew he was in trouble. His mother always carefully emptied his pockets when she sorted the family laundry. His adventuresome spirit also attracted him to insects and small amphibians. He caught lightning bugs and played with frogs and lizards.

He loved animals and had dogs and cats, but he had that other pet that did not romp and roll with him—a gopher tortoise. I had heard about it before I visited one summer, yet I could not believe it the first time I saw it. Harold was not sure exactly where the tortoise came from when it showed up about the same time every day. It was obvious it was there for food and a little attention. It crawled up close to a faucet where Harold turned on the water and let it splatter on its shell. Some days he even used a hose to give it a big dowsing. He made sure he put out some green stems for it. To Harold’s delight, after it ate and enjoyed the water, it stayed around for a while. Then it moseyed off until the next time.

A friend in Baldwin County told me gopher tortoise meat was considered good eating when he was a boy. He trapped them to sell to peddlers. When he learned where the critters made their burrows, he either dug them out or set a trap to capture them by the leg. During his youth, they were plentiful because there was plenty of land for them to burrow that had not been cleared. They are scarcer today.

According to Outdoor Alabama Magazine, small gopher tortoise populations are found along sandy ridges along south Alabama waterways. Federal and state laws protect them. They are found in the following counties: Choctaw, Washington, Mobile, Baldwin, Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Clarke, Crenshaw, Coffee, Conecuh, Covington, Dale, Escambia, Geneva, Henry, Houston, Monroe, Montgomery, Pike, and Wilcox. Small populations occur in Autauga and Macon counties. The best populations in Alabama live in longleaf pine-scrub oak-wiregrass sand hills. There are very few public places with tortoise populations in our state. Only the Conecuh National Forest and Fort Rucker Military Base have more than 100 individuals.