WILMINGTON — You may have seen him, or heard the story: the man with a trailer full of tortoises, walking them in the grassy space behind the Chic-fil-A on Oleander Drive.
His name is Randy Gallagher, sometimes called “the Turtle Man,” a Calabash native who rescues tortoises – in particular, the African spurred or sulcate tortoise – from owners who find out they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.
Many of those owners, Gallagher said, get the tortoises as hatchlings, when they are two to three inches long. But the African spurred tortoises are the third largest in the world, and they can grow to nearly three feet long and over 200 pounds. Gallagher’s oldest tortoise is 65 years old, and going strong.
“People get them when they’re the size of a dollar bill. They’re not thinking about a lifetime commitment,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher knows of what he speaks, he’s had tortoises since he was five. One of the first things he learned, Gallagher said, is that tortoises are a lot more active them people expect; they can be nearly inexhaustible on walks. “They’re strong, they can walk 20 miles, just stopping for a bite then they’re going again,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher said one tortoise in particular – named Ben – routinely walked 10 miles without stopping. The determination is part of the reason tortoises can make difficult pets. Gallagher said he’d seen tortoises make their way through drywall and two-by-fours.
“I think they know when no one has eyes on them they can really get moving,” Gallagher said. “People get them as pets not thinking they’ll wander off, but they do.”
Wandering off isn’t the only issue with tortoises; they get big — and hungry. Gallagher’s largest and oldest tortoise can go through about 80 heads of romaine lettuce.
“That’s as much as $160 a day. People don’t think about that when they’re three inches long. But it’s a bit of money. If people got a puppy and you told that dog’s going to eat five dollars of food a day, they’d go nuts,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher said he frequently wipes out entire produce departments in a single day.
“I think today I bought all the romaine lettuce in Leland,” Gallagher said.
The size, cost and other demands of raising tortoises all contribute to owners throwing in the towel. When that happens, they find their way to Gallagher.
Gallagher said he has traveled from Georgia up through Virginia, collecting tortoises when their owners could no longer handle them. One exception is Herman, an 18-year-old tortoise.
“I hatched him, I’ve been with all his life,” Gallagher said. “But he’s only 18. He’s really just a baby.”
Now retired, Gallagher said he accepts donations to help cover the veterinarian bills. But he welcomes anyone who wants to stop by and meet one of his tortoises and – if they’re feeling brave – pet them.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.