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How fast can a tortoise go? In Texas, fast enough to escape

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

So how fast can a determined tortoise go? Fast enough to make a quick getaway from their owners. We read this week in Texas Monthly that tortoise escapes are surprisingly frequent in that state in which the stars at night are big and bright. How and why? What's on the other side of that fence - tickets to the Rangers-Astros game? We're joined now by Brenda Bush, assistant director of Central Texas Tortoise Rescue, in Pflugerville, Texas. Thanks so much for being with us.

BRENDA BUSH: Well, thank you. I love being here.

SIMON: So this sounds like "Law & Order: Tortoiseville." I mean, how many of these escapes occur every week?

BUSH: I could not tell you how many escape every week because we don't get them all reported to us. But believe me, there's tons of them. These big African sulcatas, they are powerful little critters, and they break out of their fencing and break out of their yards all the time.

SIMON: Where are they trying to get?

BUSH: Just to other grass. They're just wanderers by nature, and so they're just wanting to explore and keep eating.

SIMON: Does anybody put like a, you know, a location chip in a tortoise shell?

BUSH: They can, actually. Just like you can on a dog's ear, they can put chips inside a tortoise's shell or inside their thigh. Otherwise, people will write with permanent marker a small area on their shell or affix a dog tag on their shell.

SIMON: What do you do when you get a call about a missing tortoise? A question, by the way, I never thought I would live long enough to ask in this job, but go ahead.

BUSH: (Laughter) Well, when we get a call that animal control or someone has found a big African sulcata wandering the streets, we help them find ways to try to find the owner. Or if it's animal control, they also can just bring them to us at our rescue, and we'll hold them and try to find the owner ourselves.

SIMON: When you get hold of them, what do they eat? How do you entertain them?

BUSH: They eat grass and hay. That's their primary source of food. They love spineless, prickly pear cactus. So I regularly cultivate prickly pear cactus for them to eat. And we have to have a nice big water dish of some kind for them to drink from or sit in and lots of space to walk around and graze, 'cause that's what they do. They graze just like a cow.

SIMON: I'm sure you get this question all the time. Is there any chance that when a tortoise escapes, they're just trying to find BJ Leiderman who writes our theme music?

BUSH: (Laughter) I think when they escaped, they're trying to find the greener grass on the other side, the cactus on the other side, or male or female that might potentially be out there somewhere.

SIMON: And so to prevent a tortoise from escaping, you what - just a very strong fence?

BUSH: Right. Very, very secure fencing because they are very strong critters. We call them little bulldozers all the time. In the wild they wander for miles. And in captivity we - our rescue, Central Texas Tortoise Rescue, recommends approximately 6,000 square feet per sulcata. So that's a lot of space for one critter. But you have to remember, they're grazers, so they've got to have - just like a cow - would need acres to eat.

SIMON: Are they good company?

BUSH: They're interesting. They're fun to watch. They do like to be around people. My personal sulcata that's out in my yard will follow me around when I'm doing yard work out there. He watches for me. They're fun to have around. They're neat. But when you get a sulcata, an African spurthi tortoise, they get very large. And they are honestly a pet that you've really got to prepare yourself for, be ready for and have the right environment for. Otherwise, you will have an escapee.

SIMON: Brenda Bush is assistant director of the Central Texas Tortoise Rescue. Thanks so much for being with us, and I hope you're able to keep all of your tortoises where they're most happy.

BUSH: Oh, we will. We've got cinderblock walls and nice secure enclosures.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLKTOP PROJECT'S "KEEP ON PUSHIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.