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My Baby Don't Tolerate

Summer has finally ended in Arizona. There's never any use complaining about it, but I'm always happy to see it go. Five months of Summer is the price I pay for the seven months of Spring that follow, and I've done it now for long enough that the price is clearly acceptable. It's nice out: breezy, seventy-degree mornings with the sun out and tiny streaks of cloud in the sky to accent the big, endless blue that surrounds them. It's October. The monsoon rains have come and gone, and Spring is here at last.

Also, Baby is out in the back yard, trying to fuck the tree stump.



Baby is a Mojave desert tortoise. He's 41 years old. I know this because I was seven years old and he was freshly hatched, the first time I held him in my hands. I'm 48 years old. Hence, et cetera...

Baby's an ornery little bastard. He's an alpha male of the species, with all the aggression that this entails. Like all of his kind, he's a wild animal, regardless of circumstances — he's got a brain the size of a peanut, and little if any capacity for long-term memory. Baby's seen me a thousand times in the last forty years, and every time he sees me, it comes as a complete surprise. There's no teaching a desert tortoise, no such thing as a domesticated desert tortoise. Baby is a creature of instinct. There's no stopping him. Baby does what he does. Desert tortoises aren't "pets," they're creatures with which you share space and try to keep comfortable as best you can.

Baby hibernates for roughly five months out of the year, from the end of October through to mid-March or thereabouts. There's variation in his pattern, but not much. When he wakes up, he's hot to pick fights with other alpha males of the species, and ready to mate and produce eggs. Alas, there's no one to fuck, and no one to fight. Thus the tree stump. Eventually, he calms down a bit, and by mid-Summer he spends most of the day deep in his underground burrow, emerging only in the early morning to forage for green grasses. Toward the end of Summer, he starts showing more of himself, once again wandering the back yard in fuck-or-fight mode as he grumpily tries to stave off the long sleep. Alas, there's no one to fuck, and no one to fight. Thus the tree stump.

He usually spends and hour or two every morning — and sometimes a little while in the afternoon — alternating between trying to mount the stump and trying to goad it into combat. He circles it in counter-clockwise fashion, his head bobbing furiously up and down as he tries biting it, getting frustrated when it doesn't bite back. Every two or three passes 'round the damned thing, he'll climb on top of it and begin thrusting for a while, before clambering over it and starting the cycle anew. By the time he's done, there'll be a tiny puddle where he'd been thrusting against it. Simulated combat, simulated sex: I've come to think of the stump as Baby's own personal computer.

The back yard of the house that my Mom and I are currently renting isn't so much a back yard as a vacant lot, with little in the way of vegetation, so one of us is usually out there to feed Baby in the early hours of the morning. There are a couple of trees in the back yard, and the leaves of one of them are acceptable to Baby — desert tortoises are finicky about what they eat, so he turns up his nose at most of the leaves and weeds in the vicinity. We try to vary his diet as much as we can, so he also gets some romaine lettuce with his tree leaves. Never iceberg lettuce or cabbage or the like: It's romaine lettuce or he won't touch it.

Sometimes when we feed him, Mom's little chihuahua Pixie will be sniffing around nearby, which we try not to let happen because Baby will promptly abandon his meal and begin chasing the dog around the yard, his head bobbing up and down, fight mode furiously engaged. It's hilarious to watch: Baby's surprisingly fast for a cranky, middle-aged tortoise, and Pixie's always surprised to find a tiny, foot-long dinosaur invading her space with malicious intent. We try to keep them separated whenever possible, but sometimes I can't help myself. It is really funny to watch.



With October underway, it won't be long before Baby starts to get noticeably punch-drunk with exhaustion, trying nonetheless to remain awake for as long as possible. To the extent that desert tortoises even have emotions, Baby seems clearly upset with the idea of spending several months asleep. At some point, my mother will carry him into the house and set him down in the guest-room closet, which she'll have prepared with a blanket and enough cardboard padding underneath to discourage him as he tries to dig a hole in which to sleep. She learned this from her own mother. It's a family tradition — her mother Grace spent her life raising desert tortoises out in the Mojave Desert, so our family has been taking care of the little critters for something close to a century. At one point, when the tortoises were more of an endangered species, our family was actually licensed by the state of California as caretakers.

When my grandmother died, most of the tortoises in her and my mother's care were handed over to a desert wildlife preserve. When my mother returned to Arizona, she brought the two remaining ones with her, giving Speedy to my brother Dennis and keeping Baby for me. They've been with us for as long as we can remember. The one thing that made leaving Tucson and returning home to Phoenix palatable: It had been almost thirty years since I'd had a tortoise in my life. Uncaring, diffident bastards that they may be, I've nonetheless spent an inordinate amount of time missing their presence. It's good to have a tortoise back in my life.


October 3, 2016   •   Back to essay listings


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