International Tortoise Association founder Ann Ovenstone warned that there would be a rush to buy tortoises
It was the charming Roald Dahl adaptation that melted viewer’s hearts on New Year’s Day.
Yet tortoise lovers now fear that the BBC’s acclaimed production of Esio Trot starring Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench will spark a demand for the animals that could end in tears.
The story of a quiet man who devises a scheme involving ever larger tortoises to win over the lively neighbour he is secretly in love with had critics swooning after it was broadcast on January 1.
Guardian reviewer Lucy Mangan said she would have needed “four hearts to contain my love for last night’s Esio Trot”, while The Daily Telegraph’s Michael Hogan gave the “warm, witty and whimsical” adaptation the full five stars.
Yet the founder of a Welsh charity devoted to protecting the famously long-lived animals said she feared that it would cause a rush to buy the animals among families unprepared to devote the care and attention they need.
Ann Ovenstone, who founded the International Tortoise Association in Sully, South Wales, said the outcome could be tragic.
“The calls have already started since the programme ended,” the 69-year-old mum-of-three and grandmother-of-three said.
“It’s not as simple as putting a tortoise on a balcony.”
BBC1’s New Year’s Day centrepiece showed Hoffman keeping hundreds of tortoises in his London flat while the object of his affections kept hers on a balcony.
“People think they can do that or just throw it out in the garden but it is a reptile,” Ann said.
“People will think, ‘I had a tortoise when I was little so I will go out and get one.
“And they probably will. They will buy the tortoise, but people don’t want to buy the equipment because it is quite expensive.
“The outcome will be quite tragic.”
She feared the number of animals handed to them by owners unable to cope would rise by a quarter in the next year.
“It will be up 25% at least and a lot will unfortunately die,” she said.
“Pet shops are not obliged to sell a tortoise until you buy all the equipment.”
Some tortoises require licenses while others do not. Ann warned not having a licence when required can result in jail and a fine.
She has about 700 animals at the International Tortoise Association, kept in carefully managed environments.
Many are rescued. Others are being looked after for owners during hibernation.
“We work with the RSPCA and border police,” Ann said.
“Back in April this year Heathrow Airport asked us to take in a lot they had confiscated – I think there was about 115.
“We had to look after them and find homes for them.”
Ann thought they were intended for another country.
“They had flown from Morocco which surprised me because they were not from there,” she said.
Now is “the quiet time” for the sanctuary.
“We’ve got about 400 in the big fridge,” Ann said.
They are kept at 4°C. These are the tortoises that hibernate.
The tropical ones – about 300 of them – are kept in a tropical house at 30°C.
“It costs about £1,000 a month to heat and cool them,” Ann said.
“In the tropical bit we have got babies because the eggs hatch out there.
“They will never incubate in Wales because you never get 60 days at 30°C.
“So once they lay the eggs we put them in the incubators and they hatch.”
Giant tortoise makes ‘miraculous’ stable recovery
Where once there were 15, now more than 1,000 giant tortoises lumber around Espanola, one of the Galapagos Islands. After 40 years’ work reintroducing captive animals, a detailed study of the island’s ecosystem has confirmed it has a stable, breeding population. Numbers had dwindled drastically by the 1960s, but now the danger of extinction on Espanola appears to have passed. Galapagos tortoises, of which there are 11 remaining subspecies, weigh up to 250kg and live longer than 100 years.
Meet Jonathan, St Helena’s 182-year-old giant tortoise
Is it true that a living tortoise could have started its life in the first half of the 19th Century?
Yes its true! Jonathan is a rare Seychelles Giant. His lawn-fellows hail from the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean. Aldabra Giants number about 100,000, but only one small breeding population of Seychelles tortoises exists.
Read more about Jonathan at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26543021