Artistic director and his partner have a unique pet with Sulcata tortoise, Turbo

By Laura Latzko, August 2020 issue.

Keith Clark is best known in the community as the artistic director for the Voices of the Desert show choir, but at home, he is father to a 110-pound Sulcata Tortoise named Turbo.

Clark has had his pet for 18 years, since he was a small turtle the size of a silver dollar. The tortoise will likely continue to grow, as males of his breed can grow up to 200 pounds.

Clark said many owners aren’t prepared for how big the tortoises can get. Owning one is a commitment an owner must be willing to make.

Clark was never intimidated by the size of the tortoises. 

“I knew that they were the fourth largest tortoise species in the world, and I liked that. I wanted a big tortoise. I remember seeing them at the zoo and how cool they were,” Clark said.

Clark owns Turbo with Keith McMillan, his partner of 19 years. For both of them, Turbo isn’t just a pet.

“We worry about him like he’s a little child,” Clark said.

For a time, the couple had a dog, with whom the tortoise got along well. 

His friends had pitched in together to help him to buy Turbo as a birthday gift.

He’d always wanted a tortoise, since he was little. As a child, he had had smaller Red-Eared Slider turtles as pets. 

Having a large tortoise can be a challenge, especially when moving to a new house. When they were relocating, the couple had to physically pick up Turbo and transport him in a trailer to a friend’s house.

“You can lift him up by the shell, but as soon as you lift him up, his feet, which are incredibly strong, start kicking. Basically, what you have to do it get a very thick and heavy towel. You have to put that towel under him, lift him and then move him,” Clark said.

Owning a tortoise is a major commitment because they live long lives. Owners need to make long-term plans for their tortoises, who can live to be 80 to 100 years old.

Clark has already decided to leave Turbo to his nephew in his will.

The artist director hasn’t found tortoise care to be difficult, but it can get expensive.

Each day, Turbo generally eats Timothy Hay, a head of lettuce, cucumbers, apples and corn.

Tortoises often get most of their fluid intake through their foods.

“It’s important to have food that has lots of moisture in it,” Clark said. 

Building enclosures for tortoises can get price. Clark and McMillan have spent over $3,500 for spaces for their tortoise throughout his life.

He lives in an enclosure in the yard, which the couple built after they moved to the Phoenix area from Maricopa about a year ago. The door to the enclosure has plastic strips, similar to a refrigerator, for temperature regulation.

The tortoise is acclimated to the warm weather of Arizona, but he tends to hide out during the extreme heat of the summer.

Although he is a tortoise, Turbo is very active and can move at a surprisingly fast pace, a trait which earned him his name.

He often enjoys being around people, especially his owners.

“He is really social. He follows me around the yard. He eats out of your hand. He knows who we are. He likes people. He’s not afraid of people. He’s not afraid of dogs,” Clark said.

He doesn’t mind being petted, as long as the person goes slow. Clark said like a dog, he has a sweet spot where he likes to have scratched.

Clark said that for the tortoise, having a routine is important.

“They are very stubborn and very habitual. He comes out every morning right on schedule, and he eats right on schedule. He goes to bed right on schedule,” Clark said.

The only thing that can disrupt this strict schedule is when Turbo sees something new that intrigues him.

“If he sees something, he will push and push and push until he can get at it. They are very curious. When he sees something he wants, he’s got to have it,” Clark said.

Clark said that like a human, the tortoise’s moods depend on his surroundings.

“You can tell when he’s upset. You can tell when he’s happy … You can see when he gets moody. When he’s cold, when he’s hot, when he’s miserable because it’s rainy and muddy, you can see all those different characteristics about him,” Clark said.

Unlike certain other tortoise breeds, Sulcata tortoises don’t hibernate, but they are vulnerable in colder temperatures. Their natural habitat is a desert climate.

“In the fall, when it’s like 100 degrees, he loves it. That’s perfect for him. You’ll find him sitting in the sun, sunbathing,” Clark said.

When Turbo was little, they had a few winters where they worried about him when temperatures dropped, but he made it through them.

When they are young, tortoises are often kept indoors, to minimize the risk of exposure to weather or other animals. During the first four years of his life, before he got too large, Turbo was an indoor pet.

Most tortoises in the wild will dig burrows to avoid extreme temperatures. Although Turbo will occasionally dig, he hasn’t needed to create a burrow because he already has a covered space he can go in and out of anytime he wishes.

When he first moved outside, Turbo lived in a doghouse before moving to a larger enclosure.

Through Turbo, Clark has been able to educate others about Sulcata tortoises.

When he was smaller, Clark and his partner were able to take him out to the Rainbows Festival.

They have also visited a local children’s festival with Turbo, and the children in his neighborhood often come over to see the tortoise.

Clark has used the tortoise for advertising, putting a Voices of the Desert sandwich board on him to help promote the choir.

During one Halloween, Clark dressed as a hare and took Turbo around to local resorts.

“He’s a chick magnet. Everyone wants to hang out with him,” Clark joked.

Just as owners can teach their pets, animals often leave an impact on their humans. Clark said that Turbo has inspired him to try to be more even-keeled in his daily life.

“He gets along with everyone. He’s very patient. He teaches me to be calm and take one day at a time. That’s why he’s such a great pet. He’s not difficult. He doesn’t expect much. He behaves himself. He’s a sweet little giant,” Clark said.

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