The last place you’d probably expect to find the International Tortoise Association is tucked away in someone’s back garden in the sleepy town of Sully, in the Vale of Glamorgan. And, yet, that’s exactly where it is. The Association and its sanctuary are run by Ann Ovenstone MBE (she is known to friends and associates as ‘the tortoise lady’), and she’s helped along by a team of dedicated volunteers.
A few weeks back, I went along to meet Ann and visit the sanctuary, to make a small documentary Ann the tortoise lady for the BBC (it was shared on BBC One!! I know, check us out!!). You can watch the final piece here, although it’s edited down from about an hour’s worth of chatting and wandering around the wonderful sanctuary…
But there was loads more we discovered on our chelonia tour (chelonia being the generic term for tortoise/turtle/terrapin) than I could fit in the short video, so I thought I would share the rest of the visit here.
The association started in a relatively organic way – Ann got her first tortoise aged around five (it cost six pence from the local market – and she still has it!), and then as she got older had some other friends who also had tortoises. The animals started laying eggs, but no one really knew how to look after them, so Ann started researching … and over fifty years later, has pretty much dedicated her whole life to the care of these weird reptiles.
She works with UK Border Force to help identify illegally smuggled species, which can be challenging and upsetting work – she says that some of the largest hauls can contain up to 300 animals, half of which are usually crushed to death in transit.
While a few smuggled animals can sometimes be saved, they can never be returned to their natural habitats, as there is too high a risk of introducing bacteria or germs they might have picked up here. Instead, these animals have to be tagged, and they must be returned by their new owners to be checked every six months, to make sure they havenot been sold on for profit. It’s complicated and time consuming business, but for Ann – who has spent a lifetime in the company of chelonia – it’s worth it.
The Association’s members work tirelessly to ensure the welfare of tortoises, including caring for the sick and injured, rehoming, events, breeding and hibernation programmes. All aspects of the tortoise life are undertaken at the sanctuary and the specialist expert knowledge of those involved ensures that all tortoises who are born, bred and live there receive the utmost in chelonian care.
Although Ann says tortoises are perhaps not the ideal pets (when compared to more interactive animals like cats or dogs), they are definitely full of personality – being in the sanctuary felt a little bit like walking amongst very small and quite nibbly dinosaurs. They especially like painted toenails, as Ann told me they think they’re tiny tomatoes (both of us made the mistake of wearing sandals on the day of filming …).
The sanctuary (aka Ann’s garden) is an overwhelming complex of small runs, sheds, ponds, industrial fridges (to help with hibernation) and warm indoor tanks (to help with incubating eggs). They hold open days throughout the year, and also provide services for members like taking in tortoises to hibernate in optimum temperatures, and incubating eggs to hatch. If you have a tortoise in your life, or are interested in having a weird, tiny, prehistoric looking reptile join your family, then head to one of their open days to find out more.
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