My tortoise story begins at the zoo. No. Wait. It starts with my dad.

My father will tell you he grew up in San Bernardino, Calif. He’s really an Okie, but just barely. The 1940’s were hard times in Oklahoma. He was still in diapers when the family packed up their old Chevy and joined the post-war exodus of millions of people streaming out from desperate parts of America in search of a better future out west. In those days, California was still the land of milk and honey, and when the family came to a small hillside town that overlooked orange groves spreading to the west, north, and east, their wheels stopped rolling.

A couple of blocks from their new home, the night train whistled through town around midnight, every night. A boy could bike over to the town’s water tank and sneak through the hatch for a swim with his buddies. Winter smudge pots spilled out layers of oily black smoke to protect the orange groves from freezing, prefiguring the smog that would come later.

Some might say that my dad was born with a lizard in one hand and a tortoise in the other. He had this fascination for all wild creatures and brought them into the home. Reptile, mammal, bird. He loved them all. Except… he loved reptiles more. And among reptiles, he loved desert tortoises the best.

Dad’s best animal stories are the ones about his teenage tortoise sanctuary, seeded first with a pair and then a dozen tortoises given by people who had nabbed from the desert and brought it home, then suddenly realized they had no clue what to do next. “Give it to the reptile kid.” He constructed an enclosed pen in the yard, studied their lifecycle, built tunnels for their winter brumation, provisioned them with clover and kitchen scraps, and guarded their eggs and the hatchlings that would come. A few of the babies were given to people who’d proven they could be good tortoise stewards. Many were repatriated to the desert, near where their parents had been captured. In those days there wasn’t any awareness that captive animals can carry novel diseases back into the wild population.

Child riding a Galápagos tortoise at the San Diego Zoo.
Straddling a Galápagos tortoise at the San Diego Zoo. / Credit: Patricia Flowers

In an old box of photos I find a Polaroid: I’m dressed in blue pants, a white sweater, wearing my baby shoes, and straddling a giant tortoise at the zoo. A Galápagos tortoise. Is that look on my face happiness… or panic? Mom must have snapped the photo because Dad was definitely off making friends. He knew a secret — that the way to a tortoise’s heart was to scratch its neck. So here we are at the tortoise corral, me on a tortoise ride and Dad somewhere off to the side, on his knees with outstretched fingers, stroking the neck of a blissful tortoise. This scene will be repeated many times over the years, even as I outgrow my baby shoes and the petting zoo. Every. Single. Visit. To. The. Zoo. Dad makes a beeline to the tortoise pen, waving to tempt one of them to come over for a scratching.

As I was packing for a trip with him to the Galápagos Islands a few years ago, it dawned on me that the tortoise might be my avatar. It felt like a kind of inheritance, something inevitable, and I didn’t have any choice in the matter. This was the invisible force behind our decision to visit the Galápagos. Dad was now in his mid-70s and starting to feel the hurt from Parkinson’s. He had always dreamed of visiting these islands.

Kevin Gepford moving a Galápagos tortoise out of the road on Santa Cruz island.
On the island of Santa Cruz island, moving a Galápagos tortoise out of the road. / Credit: R. Theo Margelony

One of the things to know about Parkinson’s is that even if a person’s symptoms are tamped by medication, certain things can set off tremors. For Dad, any emotional experience will do it. You can always tell when he’s super happy because his hands start shaking. So to see him sitting in the dirt beside the trail at Urbina Bay, on Isabela Island, trying to hold his camera level while a giant tortoise is headed straight toward him, at eye level — well, excitement consumed his whole body. Dad was vibrating from joy. I didn’t expect any of his photos to come out. 

This was my father’s moment. The tortoise moved along the trail toward him. When it reached him, it stopped. Dad still swears it held his gaze for five seconds. “Hello, old friend?” Then the tortoise veered off the trail, pushed through some high grass, and was gone.

I believe my father’s guardian animal was settled before he was born. Like me, but for different reasons, he didn’t have a say in the matter. 

The tortoise chose him.