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. He’s really an Okie, but just barely. The 1940’s were hard times in Oklahoma, and 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, they stopped.

A couple of blocks from their new home, the night train whistled through town around midnight, every night. A boy could bike up to the town’s water tank and sneak through a 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 he 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 hatchlings were given to people who proved they’d be good tortoise stewards. Many were repatriated to the desert, where their parents had been captured. In those days there wasn’t yet a word for rewilding.

Straddling a Galápagos tortoise at the San Diego Zoo. / Credit: Jon Gepford

In an old box of family photos I found a Polaroid: I’m wearing my baby shoes and straddling a giant tortoise at the zoo. I have the look of a kid about to topple off the back of a tortoise. Is that happiness or panic on my face? My mother 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 were at the tortoise corral, me on a tortoise ride and dad off to the side, on his knees with outstretched fingers, stroking the neck of a blissful creature. This scene would be repeated many times over the years, even as I outgrew my baby shoes and the petting zoo. Every. Single. Visit. To. The. Zoo. Dad made a beeline to the tortoise corral, waving to tempt one of them to come over for a scratching.

As I was packing for a trip with him to the Galapagos 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 Galapagos. Dad was now in his mid-70s and starting to feel the hurt from Parkinson’s. He had always dreamed of visiting these islands.

On Santa Cruz island, moving a Galapagos tortoise out of the road. / Credit: 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, joy consumed his whole body. Dad was vibrating from excitement. I didn’t expect any of his photos to come out. 

This was his moment. The tortoise moved along the trail toward him. When it reached Dad, it stopped. He 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.