It's hard to get a Greek Tortoise anywhere else, so we go to pet stores, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Pet stores have numerous animals all in one place with pet accessories, pet care products, pet habitats, pet smells, and almost any other pet-related commodity you can think of! Those of us who love Greek Tortoises also have a love (if not of affection then of necessity) for the pet store around the corner.
Like many others, walking out the door of the pet store with a "new" Greek Tortoise stirred the same feelings experienced by a driver taking that beautiful new machine out of the dealership lot for the first time: excitement to the point of giddiness. Unfortunately, not all pets in these stores are as brand new as one might hope, and none of them come with a five-year warranty.
A little over a year ago I was in a national chain pet store looking at some Greek Tortoises with my wife. This particular store had a good size display case holding two relatively small (about CL 4") Greek Tortoises. Though we already had two Greek Tortoises, I'm always interested in checking out a pet store's "stock" just to see what I can learn (Do the tortoises look healthy? What kind of environment did they come from? What kind of setup does the store have for them? Are they doing something that I should start doing? Are they doing things that are harming the tortoises? Do they like to climb as much as Hector and Phoebe?).
At first they both seemed to be resting. One had his eyes closed and the other was awake but still. An associate came over to help me and asked if I would like to hold them. I said sure so he opened the case and handed one to me and one to my wife. Immediately I knew something was wrong: the one I was holding was far too light for his size--he felt almost hollow! I held the one that my wife had and noticed the same problem! From there I started looking for any other problems. The one that I held looked lethargic but otherwise normal. My wife's, however, was still not waking up even though his head was out and we had been holding and moving them for over a minute by this time. Then something odd caught my eye. I looked back at mine to make sure that I wasn't imagining things. Nope, mine definitely didn't have it. I turned to the associate that was helping us and said, "This tortoise's eyes are swollen shut!" We all looked closer and the tortoise gradually and seemingly painfully opened the very center of his eyes where the swelling hadn't completely strangled his sight. My heart ached. Unfortunately, this was only priming me for the shock to come.
My mind was swimming through everything I had ever read or heard about caring for sick or injured Greek Tortoises; but that knowledge would have sooner filled a teaspoon than my head--I had nothing. But since nothing intelligent was coming to mind, I decide that I might was well look like I was doing something intelligent. So I slowly looked over the carapace, feeling every scute (I had no idea what I was doing or looking for), noticing every ridge of the shell and every spur and his thighs. Carefully, I turned my tortoise over to examine the plastron for the malady that I knew I would find if I just made sure to look, touch and examine slowly enough (and, of course, I had to maintain a look of intent concentration). Then I found it! But it wasn't his shell, it was his leg! Rather, the seam where skin melds into shell. I was horrified. For a full second I stood, frozen--not sure if I was more shocked at what I saw or that I actually found something while trying to look knowledgeable. Latched to a fold of pale, scaly skin, bloated to nearly the size of the fingernail of my little finger was tick--its head buried deep.
The only one that may have been more mortified than me was the store associate. I felt sorry for this poor kid (probably a high school senior). He didn't take care of the animals, he probably just cleaned their cages, stocked shelves and showed the occasional pet to a customer. And right about the time that I mentioned that my tortoise felt a little light was when he wished that he had kept walking right past us and never squeaked a word.
Between high school boy and me I felt like I should lead the relief effort (owing to my greater age and level of confidence and because, out of the two of us, I was probably the only one that had held a Greek Tortoise more than once). I suggested we get the tick out somehow and, surprisingly fast, he produced a small container half-full of water and a pair of blunt-tip tweezers ("one point for the senior"). To my dismay, my wife and I also produced something new: two more ticks on the legs of her tortoise! This was bad (having already used the words "horrified" and "mortified," "bad" seems like the next logical adjective choice). These tortoises needed more help than I could give them. So I did the only thing that I could think of. Some may say that it wasn't the right thing to do--maybe even presumptuous. But what else could I do? I knelt down on the spot, bowed my head, placed my hands in my lap, opened my mouth, and winced as I tweezed the ticks from the tortoises' bodies and dropped them into a watery grave.
The ticks' heads were entrenched deeply into the tortoises' flesh. It took more than one grasp to get them out. I don't really know how to properly remove ticks since I've never really lived for very long in an area that has ticks, but I may very well have done it improperly. I hope that I did something good for those poor tortoises. But this store and its employees weren't done with me yet. They had one more punch in the gut just to make sure that I never forgot this place.
It must have suddenly occurred to the associate helping us that this was over his head because he left and returned shortly with a girl that must have been the manager on duty. By this time the tortoise with the eye infection was already back in the cage and all the ticks were in the water container. This was obviously more stress than she needed at the moment (and probably more attention too, as the whole scene had attracted a few spectators) because she was fairly mad when she said, "Marc is going to hate this." Then she reached into the cage, picked up the sick tortoise, and shook him hard twice, the way you might shake out a sponge that still has a little water left in it! This turned my stomach and I almost called her out on it. In fact, I'm still disappointed that I didn't call back another day to talk to "Marc" about this whole experience.
More on this later...