Reptilian romance at the Villa de Zilla:
The Tony Tortellini story
I toured a couple of homes during the recent Solar Tour sponsored by the Arizona Solar Center. I’m so impressed that the homeowner-hosts for the Solar Tour not only did some amazing things with their homes, but also that they are willing to open them up to share with complete strangers.
The first home I saw was built and is occupied by Perry and Sandy Becker. Perry is an architect who designed the home and supervised its construction. It’s a beautiful, functional, energy-efficient home, that’s built on a lot considered by many to be undesirable due to an adjacent, deep wash…which I loved! Clearly the Beckers love it, too.
Here’s the story of a home-within-a-home: The habitat the Beckers built for their adopted Desert Tortoise, Tony Tortellini. I had the honor of feeding Tony some desert flowers during my tour, and he ate them with gusto…a behavioral description I never imagined I’d apply to a tortoise!
In Perry Becker’s own words:
Since the moment when we both first saw a desert tortoise, Sandy and I were completely smitten by these cute noble creatures. So much so, that we were determined to find a way to add one to our family at the Villa de Zilla – our beautiful desert home.
Last year, we first adopted Truman – a Mohave Desert tortoise, but it turned out that he was very sick and sadly passed away after only a few months of residence. Still undaunted, we consulted extensively with Bob Brost – a renowned tortoise expert with the Phoenix Herpetological society, to provide the very best possible tortoise environment at our home.
Rather than our previous ‘free range’ full backyard access approach, Bob recommended that we construct an enclosed tortoise habitat under the shade of a Blue Palo Verde tree in the backyard to provide better overall tortoise care. So that of course meant yet another new project at the Villa de Zilla…yeah, bring it on!
As an architect, I began the splendid task of designing a new home for our future desert tortoise. Sandy and I both wanted a very organic naturalistic looking habitat that also worked with the existing palette of materials and desert landscaping at the Villa de Zilla.
The actual tortoise burrow design itself was easy; it simply had to look like a natural rock outcropping that a tortoise would naturally want to inhabit! The highly desired curving enclosure wall proved to be the most difficult task of this design.
We liked the idea of using natural stone as the primary building material and decided to try to build a unique variation of a Gabion wall first envisioned by Leonardo da Vinci back in the 1500’s and still very much in use today. These wire cage rock-filled structures are usually employed in large civil engineering erosion control projects. They are typically much wider than taller for stability and can be quite course.
We also wanted to be able to sit on this wall as well; so the stone would need to be smooth and all the metal structural elements needed to be non-ferrous to prevent rust streaking. Custom aluminum hoops were fabricated, and galvanized livestock fencing was adapted for this project. Did I forget to mention the five tons of desert rock that would be required to fill this Gabion wall? Moved one slow wheelbarrow-load at a time, and completely placed by hand; this curving wall along with its tightly woven wire top cap took just three short months to construct!
Along with the planting the required grass area and some tasty native shrubs for tortoise munching, we finished this project just in time to adopt a new tortoise from the Arizona Fish and Game Department in late April as they begin to emerge from their long period of winter hibernation. Sandy was assigned the difficult task of selecting our new tortoise.
While I had become completely fixated on a huge over-sized tortoise affectionately named Shaqzilla, Sandy was being wooed by a cute little Sonoran tortoise with a wink and a head bob. And that’s how Tony Tortellini selected his new parents!
We also had been cautioned that sometimes it may take weeks before the newly adopted tortoise will settle down and feel comfortable in their new environment. Tony walked into his new burrow like he owned the place and 20 minutes after being introduced to his new enclosure he began remodeling his den by digging an even deeper basement – a project that continues even to this day!
By all accounts Tony seems to really love his new home and even begrudgingly puts up with both of us. Truth be told, Tony will endure almost anyone if you have some tasty Globe Mallow or Desert Willow flowers in your hand when you come to visit! He also enjoys grazing on his grass like a cow…guzzling water like a fish from his dish…and pooping like a horse!
After work, Sandy and I will often enjoy cocktail hour with Tony and he honestly seems to really enjoy our company. By all accounts these endangered desert tortoises can make a wonderful addition to the right household. They’re very gentle, intelligent and quite curious. They never need any store-bought food and can go without drinking water for many months (but please keep their water dish filled!). They hibernate for almost 6 months of the year and in captivity they have been know to live to be 100 years old!
In Arizona it’s against the law to buy or sell Desert Tortoises, but they can legally be adopted through the Arizona Fish and Game Department with invaluable assistance by the Phoenix Herpetological Society. Regrettably, once they’ve been handled by humans they cannot be reintroduced back into the wild. So unfortunately for Mr. Tony Tortellini, Arizona residents are only allowed to possess a single tortoise. Experts believe that tortoises prefer a solitary existence but every once in awhile I still catch him winkin’ and bobbin’ his cute little head at Sandy!
Desert Tortoises are more fun than gold fish!