My friend's son was on his way home from football training and found a tortoise walking in the middle of the road in Lucan. As you can imagine, he was a bit surprised to spot a tortoise in Lucan. It's not something you see every day, so he picked it up and took it home to keep it safe. Then he put up some ads in local shops but didn't get any response and wasn't sure what to with it because he didn't know anything about caring for tortoises – plus he was going on holiday. In the end, his dad remembered that myself and Pauline had a tortoise that was quite old, so they asked us to mind the little one that had been found and we said yes. It was a grand little tortoise. It fitted in the palm of my hand and was very small in comparison to ours, which would probably weigh about 5lbs. Seeing them together was very funny – little and large.
Our tortoise, Jennifer Juniper as she's called, is about 40 years old. She was given to a family member when he was 12 years old and she was two – he's 50 now. He gave her to us about 11 years ago when he moved down the country and we've looked after her ever since.
Years ago, tortoises used to arrive in this country in crates and be sold for 10 shillings in town. The ones that didn't die in transit died soon after they were sold because people didn't know how to care for them and tortoises aren't suited to our climate. That kind of importation is banned now and Jennifer Juniper was well-cared-for so she's still going strong, although she did have anorexia a few years ago – something you wouldn't dream of. We had to hand-feed her with a tube for the whole of the winter and keep her from hibernating until she had enough nutrients inside her to survive hibernation.
It wasn't her lack of eating that had worried us – they actually eat very irregularly and can go anything from a few days to a few weeks between feeds. It was the fact that her eye was discharging pus and the vet didn't know what was causing it. We ended up contacting Bairbre O'Malley, a reptile expert, who used to be on the BBC's Animal Hospital with Rolf Harris and lives in Bray. She said that Jennifer Juniper was anorexic and showed us how to tube-feed her: we had to stand her up on her back legs and prise open her mouth, then insert the tube. It was very difficult to do and took two people but she survived and has recovered completely. People don't realise when they take on unusual pets that they require a lot of extra care. Sometimes she burrows herself in the ground and we have to go searching for her – it's a lot of work and if they get ill, it can cost a lot to find out what is wrong.
In terms of our little fostered tortoise, I put an ad in the Evening Herald and on www.found.ie and got a few genuine people offering to take it: like the young garda who had a tortoise already and the gentleman who'd lost a different tortoise. Then there was the one fool who made a few ridiculous calls to annoy me. I was kind of giving up on finding the real owners when I got a phone call from Lucan garda station and they gave me a number of a man who'd contacted the station about a lost tortoise –he turned out to be genuine. He had another one and was delighted to get the two of them back together, so it was all thanks to the guards in Lucan.
The tortoise had gotten out when a cousin was looking after his house and left the side gate open. Tortoises will wander off very easily. They move surprisingly quickly and in the wild, or in Lucan, as the case may be, they can roam for miles and miles.