What a tortoise can teach us

Five lessons from my new pet

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

‘Are you a dog or a cat person?’ It’s one of those questions that comes up eventually — in conversation, on Blind Date or during an Oxbridge interview. The theory is that either you like a dog’s boundless tumble of affection, or you respect the sleek independence of a cat, and explaining your choice reveals your personality.
Well, I’m a tortoise person.
I write this having recently acquired a tortoise. Little Daphne caught my eye from a tank in an Essex pet shop, where she was surrounded by other one-year-old tortoises busy burrowing away. Daphne stopped, turned her wrinkled neck and looked straight at me before coolly yawning. I knew then that she was the one.
Having lived with Daphne for a couple of months, I’ve been struck by her idiosyncrasies and wonder if she can’t teach us all a thing or two. Here are five lessons from my tortoise:

 1. Go slow Aesop spotted this one. When you spend all day with a tortoise, it really is astonishing to see how slow they are, plodding along, often pausing mid-stride to blink and peer into the distance, and falling asleep several times a day. The mid-stride pause strikes me as especially pertinent. Perhaps Daphne is catching her breath, but there seems to be something inescapably philosophical about the way she looks around with each step. Compare this to us, always in a rush, swigging coffee and tapping out emails as we hurry along, not bothering to look where we’re going. Daphne’s wanderings are full of the pleasure of treading carefully and looking at the world as you go.

 2. Burrow and climb Daphne is a Horsefield tortoise, a breed that loves to burrow and can manage astonishing feats of climbing. Once, sitting at my desk with a blanket wrapped around me and an end hanging loose off the chair, I looked around for Daphne only to see her a foot off the ground, hauling herself up the blanket with dizzying determination. Usually she’s either climbing over cushions or burrowing to the centre of a heap of clothes. I have spent hours hunting for her, only to discover her deep inside my floor-flung handbag, fast asleep.Daphne expertly combines these two skills of burrowing and climbing. Taken metaphorically, this is a good lesson: you can reach the top but only if you burrow to the heart of the matter.

 3. Be curious and be trusting Daphne loves to explore. If you put her loose in the middle of the room, she doesn’t sit idle, but wanders off to a corner and works her way around the circumference. She noses into every nook and cranny and, when too exhausted to continue, burrows into something (see lesson 2) and goes to sleep, legs splayed out of her shell. She trusts that I’ll find her eventually, and bring her back to her little house

 4. You are only human Humans are an arrogant species, ruling the world as we do. Usually a pet reinforces this idea — a dog loyally by your side, a hamster that dies after a couple of years running pointlessly on its wheel. Tortoises are likely to survive you. The knowledge that Daphne is more likely to be at my funeral than I am to be at hers completely shifts the power balance. She’s lumbered with me for a few years rather than the other way round. Added to which, tortoises are pretty much dinosaurs. Looking at something so ancient, how can you fail to feel humble?

 5. Heed the literary power of a tortoise Unfortunately, Daphne is not blessed with the intelligence to read anything, let alone great works of literature. Tortoises have, however, been an inspiration to many writers and appear in more books than you might at first imagine. Gerald Durrell had Achilles, with his passion for strawberries. Michael Ende gave them a role both in The Neverending Story and Momo. The latter featured a particularly clever tortoise called Cassandra who could see half an hour into the future. Tom Stoppard put a tortoise in Arcadia; Roald Dahl gave us Esio Trot; and Evelyn Waugh put a cruelly bejewelled tortoise in Brideshead Revisited. My favourite tortoise writer must be D.H. Lawrence, whose beautiful tortoise poems capture the essence of these wonderful creatures. ‘Tiny bright-eye, slow one,’ he calls a baby tortoise, ‘so indomitable… challenger’.

Perhaps you might find you’re a tortoise person too.

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Show comments
  • Natalie

    “Daphne’s wanderings are full of the pleasure of treading carefully and looking at the world as you go” I love this!

    Thankyou for such a sweet article… although now I do have this compulsion to go and buy a tortoise….

  • Nicole

    I can’t express how much I love this article. These are wise words from a tortoise owner. The lessons I’ve learned from my Horsfield tortoise Zoya have been powerful as well.

  • Atlin Merrick

    I do so like the warmth and peace of burrow…be curious…be trusting. This is…this makes me *breathe.*

  • Eve Elizabeth Meredith

    This beautifully written article made me want to dash out and add a tortoise to our menagerie. May Daphne have a long and contented life!

  • Eddie

    I hate to say it, but aren’t tortoises, sort of, boring?

  • First L

    What a lovely lovely article. Thank you.

  • george

    My dog is certainly a tortoise person. We don’t know exactly what the appeal is to her, but more than anything else — ‘would you like to go in the car?’ (her next-favourite thing) — she is excited by the prospect of looking for tortoises and then (at the local park), finding them. We tell her to sit and that the task is ‘just to look’. I think in part she is fascinated because they are so unlike other creatures she has ever encountered (cats, people, squirrels, birds).