Monday, July 6, 2009

"Rocket" Blasting Off to a New (Temporary) Home / Outgrows his Own / Turtle-Love

609-pound tortoise taking trip to Tulsa

Jaime Oppenheimer/The Wichita Eagle

Rocket, an Aldabra tortoise at the Sedgwick County Zoo, has outgrown the indoor winter facility and will soon move to the Tulsa Zoo. The 609-pound tortoise is 78 years old and has been at the zoo since it opened. Zoo officials hope to bring him back when the exhibit is enlarged for him. (July 2, 2009)

Gallery: 609-pound tortoise has outrgrown the zoo
Tortoise outgrows home at Sedgwick County Zoo
At age 78 and tipping the scales at 609 pounds, Rocket is a ladies' man — as far as tortoises go.

Within the month, Rocket will be headed across the Kansas border in search of a bigger pad and lost love.

The Sedgwick County Zoo's most iconic Aldabra tortoise — commonly known as the giant tortoise — has grown too big for the zoo's 1970-era amphibian and reptile building.

Rocket is not only leaving Wichita, where he's lived for 40 years, but also leaving his tortoise friends Speed, Missy and Washington.

The Aldabra tortoises are native to the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean and are not considered endangered.

Moving, however slowly, will be a big change for this septuagenarian.

"We are excited about the prospect of having him down here. An animal that big is kind of exciting," said Barry Downer, curator of reptiles and aquatics at the Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum.

He will temporarily join Tulsa's Aldabra tortoise herd and live with Big Al, Mo, Dozer, Kadabra and Tofi.

That's good news for Rocket, Downer said, because the Tulsa zoo has one of the most successful Aldabra tortoise breeding programs in the nation.

Rocket will have larger, more plush living quarters, a pool to swim, three yards to graze in and an indoor facility with heated floors and skylights.

Both Sedgwick County and Tulsa zoo officials say Rocket's move is only temporary, possibly three to five years or until a new amphibian and reptile building can be built at the Sedgwick County Zoo to house a tortoise of such gargantuan girth.

Rocket's legacy

When the Sedgwick County Zoo opened on Aug. 25, 1971, it featured only American and Asian farm animals.

The next year, exotic animals began arriving, said Christan Baumer, spokeswoman for the zoo.

The first of the exotic animals was a pair of Caribbean flamingos and three Aldabra tortoises — of which one was Rocket.

He was 40 years old then and already "a big boy," Baumer said.

In the nearly four decades since, Rocket has thrived simply by eating and growing.

To get some perspective of just how big Rocket is, consider these facts:

* The largest Aldabra tortoise weight ever recorded was 683 pounds. If Rocket keeps up his current regimen he will bypass that weight in about six years.

* The average weight of a male Aldabra tortoise is closer to 250 to 400 pounds.

* He is already one of the nation's largest Aldabra tortoises.

Although Aldabra tortoises typically live 60 to 90 years, there have been some known to live up to 150 years.

Move is for his safety

The giant tortoise is one of the most asked-about animals at the zoo.

"He is very beloved by keepers and guests," said Nate Nelson, curator of amphibians, reptiles and fishes at the Sedgwick County Zoo. "Guests know him by name and ask for him."

At times, Rocket's personality has been a crowd-stealer.

"He is so big and charismatic," Nelson said. "He'll come and check you out and want to know what's in your hands."

He has a favorite red ball. He likes to munch carrots, salads and prairie hay. He quickly downs sweet potatoes and watermelon.

But he has also grown so large he puts himself in danger.

Because he isn't shy, Nelson said, Rocket has been known to get his feet over the herpatorium's enclosure. Should he fall from the raised exhibit, it could seriously injure him.

"When this building was constructed in the early 1970s, it wasn't built for a 609-pound tortoise," Nelson said. "It's a three-foot drop to the floor. At that weight, he could conceivably injure his shell or legs. We don't want to see that scenario play out. As soon as possible, we plan on enlarging our indoor and outdoor exhibit and bringing him back."

And, because of his girth, he hasn't been able to spend the winter in the public indoor exhibit area for the tortoises. He has been regulated to the herpatorium's greenhouse, away from the other tortoises.

That will change once he arrives in Tulsa.

Terrie Correll, zoo director at the Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum, is an old friend of Rocket's. She was his zookeeper at Sedgwick County Zoo when he first arrived.

She remembers Rocket was already climbing and testing the bars at the Sedgwick County Zoo.

"He did that when I was there but apparently he has gotten worse and now strands himself," Correll said. "We have a much better setup for an animal that large. "

She also remembers Rocket was quite taken with lady tortoises, which is good because Tulsa intends to use him as a breeding male.

For now, plans are being made to help Rocket on his journey to Tulsa.

The massive 2 1/2-foot tall tortoise who is nearly 3 feet wide and 4 feet long is being trained to follow his red ball up a ramp. That skill will come in handy when he is transported by trailer.

"Rocket has seen lots of people come and go out of his life," Baumer said. "And now he is leaving us. He is going to be very missed. But we hope we can bring him back."

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or

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