Gopher Tortoise

by | 29th August 2012

Essay By Elizabeth Loudon

It’s breezy. I can hear the wood planks squeak and creak as I rush down the path. The sun sits directly overhead. I approach the waterfront and stop to admire the power and beauty of the crashing waves. An old lady with a dog stops to ask me about my writing. She mentions that she saw a group of kids earlier, so she was wondering what we were up to. I grin and reply, “Yep, I’m a straggler.” Although I am carrying on a conversation, I’m distracted by the urge to ditch my shoes and frolic barefoot. I feel like a child, but I must practice self-control and limit my frolicking. The group is always ahead of me, and I should be running to catch up. Oh, the challenges of being a straggling tortoise in a world of hares!

When I return to the boardwalk, I begin traveling at an accelerated pace. All the dips and inclines make me feel like I’m walking on the Great Wall of China. I am trying desperately not to be the last student to return to the parking lot. Just as I’m rounding a bend, I see a round object in the sand moving slowly and steadily towards the boardwalk. I come to an abrupt halt and stand face to face with a gopher tortoise. Like a paparazzi, I quickly remove my camera phone from my pocket and snap pictures of the rare creature. I begin to talk to him, hoping I can coerce him to come closer. What am I thinking? He’s not a dog! To my great surprise, he continues to approach me.

Gopherus Polyphemus

Gopherus Polyphemus. Photo by NASA.

He sits for a second and stares at me. Would it be conceited to think that he’s as interested in me as I am in him? Nah, if anything he’s just assessing me to see if I am a threat. Gopher Tortoises have the conservation status: “vulnerable.” Not only do they cope with environmental degradation, but they also experience poaching because humans desire their habitat and their meat. The Gopher Tortoise earned the nickname of “Hoover Chicken” during the Great Depression because it was viewed as an economical and easily hunted source of food. As a result of habitat loss and predation, gopher tortoises are at great risk. If I were a corrupt developer, or a hungry poacher, or even a misguided pet seeker, I would be quite dangerous to the gopher tortoise. It is unwise for him to approach me with such fearlessness, but he is fortunate that I am simply a curious student.

In the modern day, the biggest advantage that a vulnerable or endangered animal can have is being appealing to humans so that they are inspired to protect and preserve it. The easiest way to earn this advantage is not by being an indispensable member of an ecosystem, nor by being increasingly uncommon. In all seriousness, the best method for appealing to humans is by being cute. As I gazed at the gopher tortoise, I concluded that he’s in luck. Although he’s not cuddly like a polar bear, he’s adorable in his own right. While initially optimistic, I began to realize that even the adorable and relatively famous polar bear isn’t likely to survive the appalling consequences of the environmental destruction it is currently experiencing. If the polar bear can’t make it, does the gopher tortoise even have a chance?

The realist in me cautiously hopes that the gopher tortoise can beat the odds and thrive. Tortoises are often associated with age and wisdom because they have the potential to live for more than fifty years. In the ancient story of the tortoise and the hare, we are taught that tortoises should not be underestimated. If humanity is similar to the self-assured and speedy hare, our childhood fables should remind us that hasty progress and overconfidence are perilous. If we do not recognize the benefits of taking our time and pacing ourselves, we may wake up to a world that is without the gopher tortoise. How then would our children be able to comprehend the story of the tortoise and the hare?

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