Staying one step ahead of a Sulcata Tortoise…Darwin and the mud hole!

And then it rained! A lot!

We did have warning, and to the extent that we could “batten down the hatches” on the property, we did prepare. Rain, once again, has been scarce, and since we do much of our living outdoors, we really move quickly through the checklist covering outdoor furniture, looking after the welfare of Pinky, the rabbit, checking the gutters and rain barrels for debris and in general, a lot of motion wondering if it’s for nothing.

All too often the predicted weather patterns stall north of us or blow on past!

But the same storm responsible for the horrifying mudslides just 100 miles north of us in Montecito dumped heavily in San Gabriel, as well.

As part of our pre-rain preparation, we verified that Darwin’s area, always on our mind, seemed safe. He has a tarped, protected area, although he prefers to burrow near the water heater.

I think we made two errors in judgment!

First, we overestimated his ability to crawl out of a very wet and muddy hole as well as also giving him too much credit, expecting that he’d find his way back under the tarp when it began to rain.

We also completely underestimated how much rain we were to experience.

This photo was taken before the rain.

It was a better protected burrow than it appears in this photo, but I believe our general inexperience with rain falling in such abundance and also within a short span of time certainly added to our ignorance and put Darwin at great risk.

By about 5:00 a.m. worry had me jumpy! Jay navigated around to the side of the house with a flashlight and he did his best (also in pouring rain and half up to his knees in mud and muck from Darwin’s timothy hay) and the alarm bells began to clang!

In Darwin’s attempt to either escape or dig deeper, we don’t actually know, he  undermined the foundation holding the water heater in place, nearly toppling the water heater left barely dangling by its strained earthquake straps.

It also appeared that at one point in the struggle Darwin was probably trapped by the sinking of the cement pad. His shell appeared scraped and he was very, very dirty. Mud alone could have held him down and made it impossible to escape, but he is extremely strong and very determined.

He definitely could have been injured (or worse) and upon further inspection we know the water heater’s pulling away from its moorings could have caused a gas leak. There’s a long list of possibilities if you begin to tally the “what ifs?”

In the end we were only out a few hundred dollars, and grateful we were spared a REAL problem. Even our youngest granddaughter, 8, commented on how little this was in comparison to the stories we were hearing about loss of lives and homes in Santa Barbara County.

Still, as a family we all agree that we need to monitor Darwin’s bulldozing habits!

Today was a little overcast. No rain, but out of precaution I went out on inspection…

and that’s right! There he is again!

He’s nose-in to the shelter containing the water heater and adjacent the scene of the previous mudslide!

We definitely try to anticipate and then accommodate his needs, but he is determined to stick closer to the spot he has picked for himself. No tarped areas with abundant clean and warm timothy hay for him!

Fortunately, the cement is now reinforced and much thicker.

However, next time it rains, I may bring him indoors.

Don’t tell my family!






40 thoughts on “Staying one step ahead of a Sulcata Tortoise…Darwin and the mud hole!

  1. I’m glad this story has a happy ending . . . but that is scary.
    Glad you’re getting some rain ~ it would be nice if it didn’t come ALL AT ONCE though. 😀

    • I really do have to practice taking Darwin and his needs one day at a time! Sometimes my imagination ventures into the future and I grow very concerned about what we’re going to do with him. I do laugh at the idea of a couple of 85 year-olds running around in the rain trying to save a giant tortoise. He is a force of nature. 🙂 But for now, we dodged the proverbial bullet!

  2. Reading about Darwin’s adventure (and misadventures) are always a good read. He must realize you are a blogger – after all, blogger’s are on a constant search for material …. he’s just showing his loyalty.

    • We think Darwin is between 50 and 60 pounds, Ray. He has slowed down in his growing at least a little bit. He’s a very determined guy! I have a friend with a female Sulcata that burrows so deep every winter they don’t even see her until spring! I don’t think I could handle that. 🙂

  3. What a story!! What is it about the hot water heater, do you think? Does it hum at a certain pitch that’s comforting? Which makes me wonder what kind of music does Darwin prefer?!

    • Ha! I think the water heater gives off some warmth, but we have a heat light for him in his little tarped area so I don’t know why he prefers the one spot! I haven’t tested him yet with music. Maybe in the spring? Ha!

  4. I’m glad you are ALL okay. I wonder what it is Darwin likes back there…. Is a hum or current or what that he goes there for? Or is the water heater placement just coincidental to the place he likes to be?

    • I think it’s just the warmth of the water heater and although we provide him a heat lamp, I sometimes wonder if that’s almost too hot for him and the burrow next to the water heater lets him moderate how much heat he enjoys! I wish I could reason with him, though. A big hole isn’t good in rain. Yikes!

  5. The water heater is warmer than its surroundings and the concrete holds heat. I’m pretty sure that’s why the sensitive Darwin (that’s MR. Sensitive) has picked that spot. Good thing you caught the scenario in time and were able to fix it. In Oregon, rain is a way of life, especially on the coast. We’re kinda like the bow of the ship for the rest of the country.

    • You’re so right about the water heater and the warmth, Jim, so we do try to provide Darwin additional heat sources to encourage movement under the tarped area. But he has decided the one spot is home, I guess. Unlike you in Oregon, as you know, our days of rain are so scarce perhaps we really can monitor him more closely and even physically move him next time. We’re still able to move him. I will try not to concern myself with the future when perhaps we aren’t as strong and he is much larger. LOL! We’ll have to hire a tortoise wrangler. 🙂

    • Thanks for thinking of us, Andrew. It was a very freak storm! It was my day to pick up my granddaughters from school and it was coming down so hard that getting out of my car and walking up to the school I was in ankle deep water. And we live in the “flat lands,” so I could easily understand how the residents in some of the fire affected areas were in such extreme distress. And then this week it is going to 85 degrees. You just never know, do you?

    • It’s so nice to hear from you, Lori! I hope you’re doing well! I really do think we were a little naive about the ability of water and mud to undermine cement foundations and create sink holes! We won’t make that mistake again!

  6. Oh, Debra, so many things to think about and care in rain in southern CA that we don’t think of here in the midwest. I am so grateful to hear that you are okay and that Darwin, determined as he is, got through the storm as well. The “what ifs” are numerous aren’t they?
    The further adventures of Darwin Sulcata. 🙂

    • Thank you for your concerns, Penny, and yes, we are a little naive in our inexperience. Just a few days before this storm I heard a meteorologist predict we weren’t going to have ANY rain for the month of January! I think that may have influenced the way we prepared. So often the rain will stay close to the mountains and we don’t see much! I do think we were really fortunate this time that he was fine. We are always talking about what we’re going to do to protect him, and we have what I think of as good ideas. We just need to determine how to convince him to cooperate! 🙂

    • I am sure he’s between 50 and 60 pounds, Kate. We can still move him–at least at this point. 🙂 I did move him in a couple of years ago, and the problem was the house is so much warmer than outside so he got extremely active! When he’s outdoors this time of year he doesn’t do much. I think we may need to build him his own house with a door we can close…or lock. LOL!

  7. What a scary experience for all of you. Poor little fellow. For whatever reason, that’s his spot and their is no convincing him otherwise, eh? These wake-up calls are a gift. I’ve been presented with many over the years, and once I’m done with my own hand-wringing and what-ifs, I see a way forward to improve the situation and count my blessings that things weren’t any worse.

    • I definitely like your observation! Yes, it was a very good wake-up call that has given us a necessary warning for the future. I find that with Darwin I really can’t worry about too far in the future because I can’t seem to anticipate his needs. We watch him as closely as possible and hope to observe a problem before it’s an emergency. Most of the time he really is capable of caring for himself. I think in this instance we were extremely fortunate.

  8. Isn’t it true how we try to stay ahead of the game and life or in this case Darwin throws in a curve ball. He has grown so much since the last post about him. Happy to hear everthing was mendable and that Darwin still has character. Enjoy your adventures with him!

  9. Dear Debra, I wasn’t sure at the beginning of this Darwin saga whether the ending would have me crying or smiling. I’m so grateful for the latter. And you and your family–grandchildren included–must be so relieved and overjoyed that he has such a powerful survival instinct.

    As Penny said, the what ifs seem numerous, but you learned such a valuable lesson for the next rain forecast. You know you could write a children’s story based on Darwin and children around the world would delight in meeting him! Peace.

      • “Its first full season of shows since the renovation will launch in May 2018.” ~> it looks like they’ve done an awesome job addressing the issues of water intrusion (and noise intrusion from the Hollywood Bowl).

    • I was truly troubled, Martin, but it did end up being an opportunity to better assess Darwin’s safety needs! I have to learn to think like a tortoise! 🙂

  10. This was rather stressful just reading your summary, Debra! I was holding my breath! I care about Darwin. ❤️ Your smart 8 year old granddaughter was also right about there are many people and areas affected by disasters, rain, blizzards, mudslides and more. . . 🙏 I cannot help but pray and donate to Red Cross who arrive to handle problems around the world. 🌐 💞

    • I am happy to announce that Darwin has been staying out of trouble since that last “near-disaster.” There is so little we can do when we hear of disasters all around the world, but I, too, am very grateful for the work of the Red Cross and several other international relief efforts. I hope all is well where you live! 🙂

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