Albert Lea graduate now raises tortoises

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 15, 2008

By Alyce Jacobsen, special to the Tribune

BIRD ISLAND &8212; Ever since they had a home of their own Glen Jacobsen and his wife, Donna Calander, have had an assortment of reptiles living with them. They are pets, a hobby and much more.

Glen and Donna are part of regional and international organizations with the goal of protecting and preserving threatened and endangered species of reptiles. Glen is a partner in the Turtle Survival Alliance, a trustee in World Chelonian Trust and a member and past president of the Minnesota Herpetological Society, groups that work with government agencies on conservation, preservation of habitat and sometimes rescuing individual animals.

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Glen Jacobsen, 50, grew up in Albert Lea. He graduated from Albert Lea High School in 1975.

The lower level of Glen and Donna&8217;s house in rural Renville County is a haven for tortoises and other reptiles with cages, pens, water tanks and special warming lights to keep animals comfortable during the winter. Most of them live outside in warm weather.

Glen had been interested in turtles and snakes since childhood, so he was pleased to learn that his wife liked them too. Their first pet was a box turtle &8212; a sad creature with a deformed shell that needed a home. It survived the winter, but mostly it just sat there. In the spring, Glen made a home for it in the yard. With sunshine, fresh grass and a place to hunt for worms it developed a whole new personality. It thrived.

Over the next few years, Glen and Donna acquired more turtles, some frogs, skinks, several Uromastyxz lizards, boa constrictors and pythons, bearded dragons and tortoises. They became active in the Minnesota Herpetological Society and offered programs &8212; with live animals &8212; to schools and Audubon Society chapters. Their place became known as a haven for reptiles needing foster care or permanent homes.

During a Minnesota winter, tortoises eat pumpkins, squash and other vegetable matter, some from home gardens, some donated and some purchased. Last fall after Halloween, Larry at the Albert Lea pumpkin patch donated the little pumpkins that were left in the field to help feed 30 tortoises in Glen&8217;s Tort Resort.

The largest is a Sulcata, a species that originates in sub-Saharan Africa, and is a temporary boarder. Sulcatas grow to be over 200 pounds. Most tortoises living in captivity have an undetermined life expectancy, but herpetologists hope they are all in excess of 100 years.

Longevity records of over 200 years are documented. Sulcata tortoises are the third largest species and Burmese mountain torts are fourth. Larger ones are the Galapagos and Aldabran giant tortoises, both of which range in the 400- to 800-pound category. The sulcata at Glen&8217;s was an unwanted animal that needed a place to stay, graze and regain its health.

Four Burmese mountain tortoises, natives of Southeast Asia, are permanent residents. Adults weigh up to one hundred pounds, have black shells and big appetites. It&8217;s hard to imagine tortoises fighting, but it can happen if two or more males share a pen with a female. They push, bite and try to flip each other over. That would be an unusual fight to watch.

Glen has two adult and seven juvenile leopard tortoises from the African savannah. Adults are 25 to 70 pounds and in the wild they graze on land that is also used by large grass-eating animals. The zebra, wildebeest, and others eat the long grass to the ground. Since they move faster than the torts, new fresh grass is ready when they arrive to eat.

Leopard tortoise shells are light-colored beige or tan with brown markings and one adult has deep crevasses between humps indicating poor nutrition when she was younger. The Turtle Survival Alliance placed the young ones with Glen and Donna after a confiscation. The adults are adoptions from a family in the Twin Cities that had them for years but did not care for them properly.

The small creatures with beautifully patterned shells are star tortoises from India. Their starred patterns and the spots and blotches of the leopards help them hide in tall grass.

In a separate pen are two red-footed tortoises from South America. They are 16 to 18 inches long and have a bit of bright red on their front legs and on their noses, a startling color for a tortoise. They eat lots of fruit and greens. The red-foots are also adoptions from folks who didn&8217;t want them any more. Given tortoises&8217; long lifespans some people get tired of them after the novelty wears off. This is a good reason to do careful research before acquiring a tortoise.

The small, flat-looking tortoise trying to climb the wall is a pancake. These are scarce since they lay only one or two eggs a year. They have been removed from most of their native area by Africans trying to earn a few cents, and habitat is destroyed. Russian tortoises are also being plundered in the wild.

Burmese mountain tortoises lay about 40 eggs and so potentially have lots of babies. But there are only a dozen or so herpetologists working with them in the United States, outside of zoos. These are the same tortoises that the Minnesota Zoo has in the Tropics Trail. A keeper there runs the studbook for the species and Glen is listed in it.

When Glen gets animals from the Turtle Survival Alliance, he has to offer half of any offspring back to the group for bloodline exchange and other breeding programs. Sometimes tortoises are transported across the country or across oceans to a home where they will be given proper care. The TSA arranges the details and some airlines offer free flights.

In the spring as the weather warms, the tortoises are moved outside to shelters in large grassy areas protected by various fences, including electric wires to discourage visiting raccoons. All summer they graze on grasses and weeds, but will enjoy occasional apples, garden greens and any surviving pumpkins.