MADISON — Bill Cunningham’s golfing foursome became a fivesome Monday afternoon when a large stray tortoise crawled onto the ninth fairway at the Cherokee Country Club.
“We see a lot of wildlife at Cherokee, but this was something that was almost unbelievable,” Cunningham said, “because it isn’t a known creature, I think, to our area.”
Henry Vilas Zoo Director Jim Hubing preliminarily identified the tortoise from a photograph as an African spur thigh tortoise, Geochelone sulcata, which is native to an area south of the Sahara Desert.
From the golf course, the tortoise made its way to a Madison resident’s backyard, where Dane County Animal Services found it after 11 a.m. Tuesday eating the resident’s flowers.
Animal Services worker Patrick Comfert helped carry the tortoise in from the truck at 11:30 a.m. before they brought it to the Dane County Humane Society.
“It pulled itself into its shell and just sat there,” Comfert said. “It was like picking up a big rock.”
Comfert estimated the tortoise, which took two people to lift, weighed about 70 pounds. Henry Vilas Zoo Director Jim Hubing and Comfert estimated the tortoise is between 20 and 30 years old. None of the zoo’s tortoises were missing, employees said.
Jan Viney, development director for the humane society, said the group is not equipped to care for such a large tortoise permanently, but will hold it at least for the next seven days for its owner to claim. Viney said its owner should contact the humane society and prove ownership.
“They are sold, unfortunately, into the pet trade,” Hubing said. “Then they get big and people release them or try to find some other home for them. It’s only a guess, but that may have been what happened.”
Hubing said he discourages people from owning exotic pets. He said the tortoise would die if it remained outside and the temperature dropped below 50 degrees.
Comfert said Madison has an ordinance prohibiting the ownership of exotic pets, including monkeys, big cats and poisonous snakes, but tortoises and turtles are not included in that list.