Master Oogway, the newest resident at the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station in Miami, is a foot-stool sized South American yellow-footed tortoise. Just don’t tell Master Oogway that.
The tortoise, found wandering around Doral by state wildlife officers in October, acts more like a puppy.
“He’ll follow you around. He’ll eat out of your hand. You can pet his head,” said Christopher Boykin, the rehab center’s executive director.
The exotic tortoise winning the hearts of staff and visitors alike is also the exception at the nonprofit seabird station, started 36 years ago to rescue and release native birds. And his presence highlights a worsening problem: what do do with injured, nonnative wildlife. While it continues to rehab mostly birds — pelicans, gulls, terns and owls are among the current patients — the station’s growing reputation has made it a magnet for all kinds of injured wildlife, straining its limited budget and space.
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Enter Master Oogway, named for the Kung Fu Panda movie character who issues Confucius-like aphorisms — “There are no accidents!” — while spreading his powerful chi.
With so many discarded animals in South Florida threatening the state’s native wildlife — pythons, tegus and iguanas all started as pets — the center hopes the wise tortoise can become a mascot for responsible pet ownership and help define the center’s mission to rehab and release only native species.
“Even the things we don’t think have an impact very likely have an impact, so we focus on natives, which we’re permitted to do,” Boykin said.
Thankfully the new ambassador has no problem coming out of his shell. When Boykin or any of the 50 volunteers who work at the center enter Master Oogway’s pen, which he shares with a great blue heron, the tortoise races for them at turtle speed, chunky elephantine legs shuffling through the sand. If they sit, Oogway squirms into their laps. And a chin scratch? If only turtles could wag their tales.
It’s hard to know Oogway’s exact age, but from the rings on the scutes on his shell, Boykin estimates the turtle is old. He was likely raised with a family, and probably hand fed. His behavior is also not uncommon.
“These animals are a lot more intelligent and lot more cognizant of their surroundings than people give them credit for,” said Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill, who gave his nephew an African spurred tortoise.
“It was the size of a pingbong ball when I gave it to him,” he said. “Now he’s 18 or 19 and he’ll come when you call his name. He’ll sit. If you scratch him, he’ll do that thing like a dog where he shakes his leg.”
Which might explain turtle therapy. Around the world, turtles have joined an army of dogs, dolphins and llamas as therapy aids. A Broward County, Fla., psychologist trained a box turtle named Florida to high-five and roll over to help kids with anxiety. In Defuniak Springs, Fla., residents of a nursing home steer walkers and wheelchairs around Shelly, a spurred turtle. Another spurred turtle in Maryland visits hospitals and nursing homes in a dress to hide her diaper.
Googling “how to train your tortoise” will turn up nearly half a million hits. YouTube is total rabbit hole. A video about a Japanese funeral home director and his 42-pound tortoise has been viewed more than a million times.
“People have this misconception about animals, that a tortoise is a tortoise is a tortoise, that they can act only on instincts and can’t have feelings,” Magill said. “Quite honestly, I think that’s a very self-centered attitude to have.”
Pelican Harbor, which in 2016 cared for 2,505 animals representing 152 different species, is hoping that kind of turtle love will help promote its mission. This year the small station, which started in a tool shed and now occupies a former county building just over 900 square feet with less than a dozen pens, had to scale back the number of nonnative animals it treats after the Humane Society of Broward County said it could no longer accept the rehabbed animals. Pelican Harbor hopes to pivot to explaining the risks of owning exotic pets and the need for proper care.
“We have 300 species of birds in Miami. It’s hard to know what’s native and what’s exotic. So the rock doves, the collared-doves, the macaws, none of those are native but everybody doesn’t know that,” Boykin said. “So when (a rescuer has) traveled in traffic for an hour and they’re crying, it’s hard for us to turn them away. We don’t want to do that. But we do want to educate them upfront on what’s native and what’s exotic.”
The center is now in the midst of its 23rd Fish Drive, an annual fundraiser to collect the $25,000 needed to feed the animals its rehabs through the year. The drive ends this month. To make a contribution or find out more about the station, visit www.pelicanharbor.org.
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Pelican Harbor Seabird Station is a nonprofit that has been rescuing wildlife for 36 years. This year, it rescued more than 2,500 animal mostly birds, feeding them a whopping 29,000 pounds of herring, smelt and other fish. In 2015, the station raised just over $400,000 and spent more than $380,000, with 85 percent going toward wildlife treatment, education and conservation. The center is now in the midst of its annual Fish Drive to collect the $25,000 needed every year to feed its patients. To find out more or make a donation, visit www.pelicanharbor.org.