The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 28, 2000


Is Schilda the Tortoise the Oldest Pet in Carlisle?

Not many pets can claim to have seen the end of the Second World War. But Schilda, owned by Uschli Schueller of Hartwell Road, has celebrated her fifty-sixth birthday, and is still going strong. Schilda has lived on two continents and seen her family, which includes Uschli and her four children, through tragedy and resettlement, providing a thread of continuity to a former life as they've adjusted to living in America.

Schilda (German for "shell") is a Greek Land Tortoise. Originally purchased by Uschli's late husband Carlo when he was a thirteen-year-old child, Schilda was only one inch long, but has grown to about one foot in length.

Many Greek Land Tortoises sold as pets died quickly because they were kept indoors (they are now endangered and protected by law). Carlo, an animal lover who already owned two water turtles that eventually lived into their sixties (one still alive), knew it was important for these tortoises to have sun. To this day Schilda is a sun-worshipper, inhabiting an outdoor pen whenever the temperature is above 50 degrees. She especially loves hot, humid days, and bathing in the sprinkler is her favorite pastime. At first the family worried she could be disturbed by birds or dogs, but soon discovered her natural defense, hiding in her shell looking like a very uninteresting rock, kept her safe.

On a recent spring afternoon, I visited Schilda and watched her "play" with the Schillers' dog Theo, who seemed quite comfortable to have a tortoise crawling around him.

Schilda was curious to meet new people, her head emerging from her shell when my children, along for the visit, spoke to her. She was curious about my camera, approaching to check it out; then turning her nose up at a strawberry and opting to chew on the camera strap. From April to September, Schilda feasts on a diet of Boston lettuce (a true patriot, she will eat no other kind), strawberries, bananas, melons, and other fruit, supplemented by an occasional slug or dandelion she finds in her pen. She must store up plenty of food to survive her winter hibernation from October to March, during which she eats nothing.

Last year the family received a scare when Schilda awoke from hibernation smelling strangely and refusing to eat. With some emotion, Uschli describes how the tortoise continued to be lethargic and low in appetite, until the family knew she was in danger of dying. Not knowing who to turn to, they called their dog vet who referred them to Dr. Mertz of Dedham, also known as the "Odd Pet Vet." Dr. Mertz confirmed that Schilda was near death from a common bacterial infection. He administered fluids and antibiotics, and trained Uschli's son Stefan to inject antibiotics into the tortoise's neck. Schilda soon improved, and within ten days was "stomping and eating again" like a healthy tortoise.

Clearly Schilda occupies a special place in the family. Still referred to as "papa's turtle," she is a reminder of Carlo, who died five years ago, two months after being diagnosed with cancer. At the time, the family was in the process of relocating from Switzerland to New England, an area Uschli and her husband had "fallen in love with" during a 1991 tour of the United States. Deciding it was what Carlo would have wanted, the family persisted with the move, and found themselves in Carlisle in the spring of 1996, with no friends or family nearby. It turned out to be the right decision; the children soon found friends in Carlisle and Uschli turned to the nearby Estabrook Woods for solace. Having lived all her life in Zurich, Uschli was a "city kid" who nevertheless found nature "a balm for the soul."

Greek Land Tortoises can live to be seventy-five years old. With the help of the Odd Pet Vet and her loving family, Schilda can live another twenty years or more. Will she be the first centenarian pet in Carlisle? We'll be holding our breaths.

2000 The Carlisle Mosquito