300-pound tortoises crawl into Aiken
It’s not every day you drive down Whiskey Road and see a 300-pound tortoise munching on grass on the side of the highway, but on Wednesday motorists slowed – and some even pulled over – to get a close-up look at Franklin.
Franklin is one of seven African land tortoises, also known as sulfate or spurred tortoises, kept by Randy Gallagher of Sunset Beach, N.C.
Gallagher, a retired police officer, has been taking the tortoises to various appearances for the last year and a half, from birthday parties to simply sitting in a busy part of town, he said. He had the tortoises at the Walmart on Richland Avenue around Thanksgiving and came back to the area to bring the tortoises to a kids day event at a store in North Augusta.
Gallagher, who is also known as “The Turtle Man,” will have the tortoises at Tire Kingdom and the Walmart on Richland Avenue during the day until Saturday.
“It’s an outreach for children and gets parents to spend some time with their children and expose them to wild animals.”
Stephanie Slade brought her 2-year-old daughter Carissa to see Franklin.
“I heard from a friend that the turtle was up here, so we wanted to stop by,” she said.
When asked by Slade if Franklin ever gets “mean,” Gallagher responded: “He’s never mean, but if kids try to feed him, he’ll bite.”
A “bite” usually requires nothing more than a Band Aid, Gallagher said.
During the day, children and parents rubbed Franklin’s large shell and the top of his head. Some children even took a ride on his shell.
Gallagher said he’s been keeping animals since he was 5 years old, and he’s had Franklin for 45 years. These tortoises normally live more than 100 years and reach weights of 600 pounds, Gallagher said.
In addition to the tortoises, Gallagher also has about 200 snakes, he said.
He began taking the animals around about two years ago when he was suffering from health complications related to stress following retirement, he said.
Gallagher said it’s important for kids and their parents to partake in activities like this together, not only for the bonding, but to teach kids more about wild animals. On some days, more than 2,000 people will stop to visit with the reptiles, he said.
“There are too many people spending time doing other things and letting their children watch TV, and kids are scared to death of animals,” he said. “If I can get somebody to come out and spend some time with their children, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”
“With children out here, I think it’s a way of sowing a mustard seed,” he said. “One of them might grow up that can change the world and might help the animals. We’re losing a species a day to extinction.”
If you would like the tortoises to appear at a function, call Gallagher at 843-241-6311.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.