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The Flat Cap on ... Tortoises

Today The Flat Cap received a visit from his young neighbour Tommy and his mum who live at number 46. Tommy had lost his pet tortoise, “Mr. T” and was rather upset. He wondered if Mr. T had wandered into The Flat Cap’s back garden in search of food, so together they all went to look for him. As luck would have it Mr. T was staying out of the sun by lazing in the vegetable patch at the end of the garden. So The Flat Cap put the wandering tortoise in a cardboard box with some cabbage leaves and reunited him with his grateful owner. The above exchanges got The Flat Cap thinking about tortoises and led him to find out a bit more about their long and fascinating lives.

Tortoises invariably live to a ripe old age and it is not uncommon for them to go way past one hundred years. As a hundredth birthday is no big deal for a tortoise they don’t qualify for a telegram off the queen, and because they’re so laid back they rarely make a fuss. It’s the same with birthday cakes and parties; the average tortoise would just as soon eat some fresh vegetables or munch a dandelion leaf than ask for a big cake – unless of course it’s carrot cake. The oldest tortoise ever recorded was called Tu’i Malila and presented to the royal family of Tonga by the British explorer Captain James Cook soon after its birth in 1777. Tu’i Malila remained in the care of the Tongan royal family until his death by natural causes on May 19, 1965, at the age of 188. Captain Cook was not so lucky. Two years on from the royal gift he was killed during a confrontation with some burly Hawaiians after they had rowed about coconuts and who had the best ship.

Probably the most famous tortoise is the one who challenged The Hare to a race. Fed up at The Hare’s boastful ways and having to hear all about how fast he was, how good he was at running, The Hare’s string of girlfriends, and what a brilliant life he was having The Tortoise suggested they go head to head. It was really big news and lots of other animals came out to line the route and urge on their particular favourite. A local badger and proprietor of the village bookmaker’s offered odds of 10,000 to 1 for The Tortoise to win the race. Unsurprisingly there were very few takers, even at such long odds, and the badger bookie was forced to offer a number of novelty bets such as time of the first lettuce leaf, or how many carrots The Hare would consume during the race. This helped generate even more interest and with everything in place the contest went ahead.

Nowadays such events would receive plenty of media attention and television companies would enter a bidding war to buy the rights to screen such a big sporting occasion. However this race took place before the advent of television so all that exists are newspaper reports and various accounts that have been made into books. As with most sports there was a committee of forest animals set up to map out a suitable course, refreshment stations were set up along the route, and there was an official timekeeper appointed. A team of volunteers with bacofoil sheets was recruited to greet the runners at the end of their journey, and a local sports shop donated running vests.

At the half way stage The Hare stopped to sign autographs, pose for photographs and give interviews, so sure was he that the race was won. Unfortunately just like Paul Gascoigne the demands of spectators and media proved too great and he decided he could afford a nap. It was at this point that The Tortoise sneaked past him and established an unassailable lead which he went on to maintain; even after The Hare had awoken and attempted to make up lost ground. The fall out from the run was immense. The Tortoise went on to become a millionaire from sponsorship deals and married the best looking female tortoise in the county whilst The Hare took to drink. Six months later The Hare was run over by a farmer’s tractor after a particularly heavy session at one of the many country inns he used to frequent.

Over a cup of tea young Tommy’s mum shared a biscuit and the following tortoise related facts with The Flat Cap:

  • Despite living to a ripe old age Koi carp can live even longer

  • Tortoises have very small brains. To prove this point the Italian biologist Francesco Redi removed a tortoise’s brain and yet the creature lived on for a further six months. The Flat Cap thinks this is what could have happened to a number of politicians, and that nobody has noticed yet

  • Tortoises like to hibernate during winter and stop breathing. Come summer they wake up again and love the warm weather, so long as they are in the shade and have access to ice lollies

  • Tortoises make good pets because unlike hamsters they are diurnal. So they sleep at night and do interesting stuff during the day. When pushed Tommy’s mum couldn’t really elaborate on what “interesting stuff” meant, unless you count eating dandelions

  • A turtle is just a tortoise that likes to go swimming a lot, although because of health and safety legislation they’re not allowed at the local swimming baths due to the inordinate time it would take them to walk from the changing rooms to the pool

  • As well as “Mr. T” the tortoise there is also another Mr. T who made a career from acting in films. He did some wrestling too

  • In Spanish the word “tortuga” is used for tortoises, turtles and terrapins. Because this was causing problems and confusion for zoo keepers and pet shop owners the clever Spaniards decided to add some extra words. So now you have “tortuga terrestre”, “tortuga marina” and “tortuga de rio” depending on whether they live on land, in the sea, or in freshwater

  • As the name suggests mock turtle soup contains no turtle meat whatsoever. It used to be the favourite soup of artist Andy Warhol who liked to paint soup tins for a living

  • Tortoises can travel at a maximum of five miles per hour, unless they get the bus – in which case it could be up to thirty miles an hour

  • Despite its name a tortoiseshell cat is soft and fluffy and almost always female

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