Tortoise can munch a bunch for lunch while clearing weeds

Wrangell's tortoise and turtle lover is looking for a few good yards for grazing this summer.

A few weeks ago, Charity Hommel posted on Facebook that she was looking for residents willing to open their yards to grazing for some of her tortoises, especially her Sulcata tortoise Atlas.

Hommel's inquiries were born out of a need to provide more food for the 3-year-old tortoise, who she rescued here in town when Atlas was less than 4 months old. Atlas already weighs 12 pounds and is a little larger than a football. "And she'll just continue to get big," she said, adding that with proper husbandry, Sulcata tortoises can live up to approximately 100 years.

Atlas eats about three pounds of grass and hay every day. "My little lawn is not very big," she said of her small, fenced-in backyard of grass. "I have a lot of moss in my yard, which they don't get any nutrients from, so dandelions, chickweed, clover, those are all good staples for these guys."

Hommel said she has already connected with residents who have suitable lawns and are willing to let her tortoise graze over the summer. "Several of my friends and locals offered lawns that they know don't have any pesticides or chemical enhancements," she added. "That way I know it's safe for my tortoise to graze."

It can take up to five years to positively determine the gender of turtles and tortoises. While Hommel knows the gender of her other reptiles, Atlas is just getting to where the shell shape and other physical indicators suggest the gender as female. "I chose Atlas because it's kind of a gender-neutral name," she said.

Also known as the African spurred tortoise, the Sulcata tortoise is originally from the southern edge of the Sahara Desert in Africa. Some were brought to America in the 1960s and 1970s and have since flourished, primarily in arid locations like New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California.

However, in colder locations like Wrangell, they need extra care. "Their shells are like solar panels, so any type of light will actually help to heat them up right away, so when it gets really nice and sunny out, she'll get almost overheated if I'm not careful."

Hommel has been raising and rescuing the shelled reptiles for over 20 years since her children returned from a friend's birthday party with two unexpected party favors - turtles Ebony and Boxer. Her tortoise and turtle pens now take up an entire wall of her living room and hold the 11 which reside in her home, including Bibbles, Vern, Albert, Zuzu Petals, Bowser, Blue, Katie and Jewels. Also in the enclosure is a rescued gecko lizard missing a tail appropriately named Mr. Stubs.

She explained the differences between tortoises and turtles: The former are land-based herbivores with short, stubby feet, while the latter are water-based omnivores with webbed feet. "Tortoises are dry, turtles are wet," she said with a laugh.

As tortoises and turtles can be quite territorial, Hommel is careful to keep them apart in their pens, even separating them in enclosed spaces when they're out in the backyard. "They can see each other, but they can't hurt each other," she said.

Another turtle named Fred has a spacious, well-lit tank in her office at Alaska Marine Lines.

Once Atlas grows past 50 pounds and two feet across, Hommel won't have enough space for her at home and will likely relocate her somewhere south. "I'm thinking I might have maybe another four or five years with her before I need to make a drastic move."

As many of her pets have long lifespans, Hommel's daughter, who lives in Corvallis, Oregon, is one of her options for relocating them when she becomes unable to care for them. Also, after many years of raising and rescuing reptiles, she has connections with many people across the country who work in zoos and do research on tortoises and turtles. "I have a bountiful amount of people that could help me rehome if I ever needed to."


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