JEROME – “I know that I’m gonna cry, I just want to let you know that,” said Kathleen Koerner, two days before her two beloved tortoises would be taken from her Jerome home to live out the rest of their lives at Out of Africa Wildlife Park.
Pepe and Boo are 20-year-old giant African spiked tortoises, said Koerner. She estimates that each weighs between 200 and 250 pounds.
It was about two years ago when she faced the fact that she just didn’t have the room on her property for them to thrive.
“It’s gonna be hard when you see the truck drive away,” she said, referring to Saturday morning.
She bought the tortoises 17 years ago. They were small enough to sit in her lap.
Their father was a 25-year-old 375-pounder. The mother wasn’t quite as large, and Koerner was told that the young tortoises were female, with each reaching a weight of about 150 pounds.
“Well, I can handle that up in Jerome,” she said, describing the day she bought them.
But Koerner had no idea about the journey she was about to embark on.
She didn’t find out until six years later that the tortoises were male.
“Which means they would be huge. And of course at the time, I didn’t realize they were the giant of the species. I just thought they were sulcatas,” Koerner said.
Pepe and Boo take profound pleasure in classical music, watermelon, and corn on the cob.
“Mount Hope has fed them since I got them,” she said. The produce manager, who is madly in love with them, said Koerner, has provided her boys with endless castoff produce, such as torn off lettuce.
The gentle giants, when they were small enough to travel, were visitors to area elementary schools.
“The kids were fascinated by them.”
Koerner said she naturally enjoys tortoises, and always has. And it brings her joy to watch others enjoy them too.
She educated the children about tortoises, including how to take care of them, and how they are mistreated.
“You have to think about feeding them, having a space large enough. And being committed for the next 100 years or so.”
“They hang around, eat, and every now and again they will have a disagreement and push each other,” she said of her boys.
“They’re there. They’re like dogs. It’s like, ‘touch me, feed me, talk to me,” said Koerner.
They walk a lot when it gets hot.
“The more space they have, the more active they are. That’s why they are not as active. They don’t have the space,” she explained.
Pepe and Boo have their own house in her yard that is insulated in stone. The radio inside is set to the classical music station.
Heat lamps keep them warm in the winter, and straw covers the floor.
“They love the straw,” said Koerner.
They are diggers by nature, she said. And her husband and grandson have had to put rebar in place all around the yard.
Koerner knows that the tortoises will continue to grow throughout their lives, possibly up to 600 pounds.
“And I’ve been selfish,” she admitted. “Until now.
“He (her grandson Zachary) just finally said ‘Granny,’ my son said ‘Momma,’ my daughters said ‘Mother,’” she choked.
“’If you love them, let them go,’” they all told her.
“And I do, and I will,” she said.
Koerner said some of friends just don’t understand. “They said they are just walking rocks. I don’t care. I love them.”
She said she feels blessed to be associated with Out of Africa.
“It is an honor for me to donate them to that facility, because I know they will take good care of them. And I will always be able to see them,” said Koerner.
Owner Dean Harrison told Koerner that she can visit her tortoises at the Park, and spoil them with their cherished watermelons.
Koerner said Harrison said Pepe and Boo were magnificent.
“I’m very very sad. But I’m very very happy at the same time. I feel very privileged for having had the opportunity to care for these boys for the past 17 years. It’s been a joy and a blessing to me, because not everyone can afford to have something like this and have a family that participates and loves them as well. So for me, it’s been a blessing all around. And it’s also been a challenge,” she said.
Zachary said he feels the same.
“I’m happy to see them go to a larger enclosure, but I’m sad to see them leave,” he said.
“And I do know that I will cry. And I know that I will cry again. But I will also laugh when I see where they are at. And the big enclosure that they have. To spread out and be tortoises, and have enough room to even dig if they want to dig,” she said.
“So this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never given a pet away,” she said.