MEET THE NEIGHBOR

Myrtle the tortoise makes home in Thompson Falls

 

Myrtle is a snowbird who flees the frigid Montana air each fall and spends her winter in Sue Hechtman's laundry room. Each spring, when the sun warms up the back yard of Hechtman's Thompson Falls home, Myrtle eagerly returns to the back yard where she dines on grass, lettuce and fruit, and resides in an Igloo doghouse.

Myrtle is an African Spur-thighed tortoise, also known as a sulcata tortoise. She's 40 years old and weighs about 100 pounds. Sue Hechtman, her human caretaker, has owned her since she was a baby.

"She was a gift to me," Hechtman says, "from someone who knew how much I'd always loved turtles, even as a little girl. When I first got Myrtle, she was small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. I'm pretty sure she thinks I'm her mother."

Hechtman got her first turtle when she was 10 years old, from a sister who was a biologist. Myrtle is the largest one she's ever had. Just to be clear, "turtle" is a generic term that refers to a reptile with a shell. A tortoise is a turtle that lives on land, usually in hot, arid areas like the southwest desert, where Myrtle originated.


Since her early years, Myrtle has migrated around the country with Hechtman and even spent a winter in a stock tank inside a motorhome in Arizona. She has adapted well to various climates and living conditions, under the care of Hechtman who closely monitors her. They have lived in Thompson Falls for about four years now, along with Hechtman's small dog, Willie.

"She just loves to be outdoors in the back yard," Hechtman says. "That's where she's happiest." Myrtle doesn't like getting cold, however, so she is welcome to come inside the house any time she wants. While she spends most of her winter time in the laundry room, she occasionally makes the rounds in the main living area. That can be a problem.

"I came home one day to find all the furniture rearranged," Hechtman laughs. "Myrtle had come in and just pushed everything around." It's easy work, she says, for a reptile that packs 100 pounds into a domed shell that's about 18 inches across.

As powerful as she is, Myrtle is extremely gentle. She loves kids and dogs, and has never snapped at anyone. She's a low-maintenance pet, too; she's never needed veterinary care, and she can live off old salad fixins' with a little melon and cucumber mixed in for variety. Her yard is completely fenced for her protection. She did, however, manage to escape the yard once when someone left a gate unlatched. Hechtman spotted her in the middle of the street and, not knowing how to move her back to safety, sat down on her to hold her still until help arrived to get them both out of the street.


Sanders County Ledger canvas prints

While she's not as warm and fuzzy as a pup or kitten, Myrtle does have ways of showing her affection. Hechtman says when she steps out the back door, Myrtle spots her and comes running. She also has an unofficial fan club of neighbors and friends who know and love her, and even a couple dog buddies who come for supervised visits.

Hechtman's greatest concern, aside from keeping Myrtle happy and comfortable, is what will happen to the tortoise when her "human mom" is no longer able to care for her. Myrtle's life expectancy is about 70 years, so she has another 30 years to go. Hechtman has already made arrangements. "There's a tortoise sanctuary in South Dakota," she says, "and some good friends have assured me that Myrtle will be sent there and well cared for."

 

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