BY MATT WILSON
MISSION— Spike the tortoise made a beeline for his birthday cake Friday afternoon to the delight of the staff at the National Butterfly Center.
It wasn’t a cake, technically, so much as a decadent pile of watermelon slices and tomatoes and lettuce leaves, crowned by a watermelon rind carved into the shape of a tortoise.
He dug in greedily while the staff sang “Happy Birthday to You,” demolishing much of the cake.
Done with the first course, he stopped for a moment by the center’s executive director, Mariana Treviño-Wright, who reached down to scratch his back. Spike swayed back and forth in evident pleasure.
The staff was happy to see Spike happy. Although African spurred tortoises can live to be well over a century old, Spike nearly didn’t live to see 18.
For the past nine months, Spike has been recovering from being burned in a fire that broke out in his enclosure in March. Treviño-Wright says that at first it looked like Spike had made it out unharmed.
“ There was no real damage evident,” she said Friday. “We could see just a tiny bit of singeing on his feet and on the front of his beak and on some of the edges of his shell, but nothing, nothing that would have led us to imagine nine months of intensive medical care of heroic measures.”
Spike was injured more than appearances let on. His first hurdle was a serious sinus infection caused by the fire that required extensive veterinary treatment. After that, his scales began to fall off, damaged by the heat from the fire.
“ They are like your fingernails, so even though they don’t look like it, they’re living, growing parts of his body that are attached,” Treviño-Wright said.
Most of those scales had fallen off by Friday’s party. Spike’s back, unshelled and exposed, is far from a pretty sight. The skin is scarred and gnarled, the top layer burned by the fire. You can see his lungs working as he breathes, the skin moving up and down on his now-exposed back.
Those scales won’t come back. A tortoise without a shell is vulnerable to a host of things, Treviño-Wright said, things like infections and fungus and exposure to too much sun and too much cold. He still requires weekly visits to the vet, and has to be swabbed down in antibiotic ointment.
Longterm, the center plans on having a new carapace made for Spike out of synthetic materials.
“ We’re going to have to get him scanned, they said, we’re going to have to do a 3-D scan of him and we’ve been sending his scales to the people in Chicago so they can kind of model them and play with them and figure out how much plasticity they should have,” Treviño-Wright said.
Valley Animal Hospital in Pharr’s Dr. Mickey Harris, Spike’s vet, says it’ll likely take four or five months for Spike to be ready for his new shell, which he says will provide some basic level of protection.
“ It’s definitely something new,” he said. “They have done some, I don’t think to this extent yet. There’s been partials made and things like that, but none that I’ve found have had a full carapace done for protection. Most of the time the injuries aren’t this intense.”
In the interim, Spike has a more homemade shell to wear: a crocheted coat made by a daughter of one of the center’s employees. The staff jokingly call it “Spike’s Snuggie.”
It’s an awful lot of to-do for the sake of a reptile. But, as the center’s gift shop supervisor Dale Oliver explains, Spike is something special.
“ When I went out to see him earlier he got up on the fence to come and see me when he heard my voice,” he said. “I was really touched by that, but that’s just how he is. He’s a very sweet animal.”
Spike will recognize staff in a crowd, and follow commands to a degree. The staff will talk about how he’ll be there in 100 years, and how he’s part of the center’s legacy. There’s T-shirts in Oliver’s gift shop with Spike’s picture printed on them and a painting of the tortoise hung up in the back office.
“ He’s family around here,” Oliver said. “He means a lot to everybody.”