Life in the slow lane

pet tortoise

Despite scares, pet tortoise enjoys a pampered life

He survived a murder attempt in the United States and death threats in Honduras. He touched off a brief crisis at the Mexican border and was the object of a frantic search in La Antigua Guatemala.

Yet as durable as the patterned shell he calls home, Jamal perseveres.

“Slow and steady wins the race, that’s his motto,” Antigua businessman Billy Burns says of his beloved leopard tortoise.

“Growing up, I always liked turtles and tortoises because my mom wouldn’t let me have a furry animal as a pet.

They were about the only option because they didn’t bark or shed,” says Burns, who purchased his tortoise in 1995 at a pet shop in Charlottesville, Virginia (USA).

The name Burns chose reflects the tortoise’s North African heritage. “I wanted an Arabic name, and Jamal means ‘beautiful boy.’”

Turning 18 on April 1, Jamal enjoys a tranquil life in Burns’ back yard, following the sun in the morning, seeking shade in the afternoon, and eating green beans, broccoli and lettuce to his heart’s content.

“This is his Garden of Eden,” Burns says proudly. Although the 8-pound tortoise retracts into his shell if petted by a visitor, he shows no fear of Burns, co-owner of Monoloco Restaurant in Antigua. Indeed, they’ve bonded.

“He knows all of my deepest, darkest secrets, and he’s not telling anyone,” says Burns, who has lived in Antigua off and on since 1998. “He’s very difficult to read. He plays it very close to the vest.”

Even so, Burns has managed to extract Jamal’s most intimate secrets. “He’s definitely still a virgin and available if anyone has a suitable mate, namely a female leopard tortoise. He’s looking for scaly skin, a hard shell.”

Though pampered at home, Jamal has endured more than his share of adversity.

“Several locals on Roatan thought I’d stolen him off the reef,” recalls Burns, who lived on the Honduran island from 2001 to 2002 while starting a bar there. “They threatened my life and his. They didn’t know tortoises are land animals, not like sea turtles at all. … I was getting threats and I was scared even to leave him in the yard.”

Fortunately, nothing came of it and they returned to Guatemala. A few years later, Burns decided to return to his native Virginia for business school.

By now Jamal was a seasoned, though undocumented, international traveler, but problems awaited as Burns’ jalopy of a VW bus rattled toward the Mexican border at Tecun Uman in western Guatemala.

An Army officer used the barrel of his machine gun to poke through Burns’ belongings and uncovered the hidden reptile. He demanded $20, which Burns happily paid.

Next was Customs. “They had no idea what to do. I explained he’d been my pet for 10 years, and he came from land, not sea.”

Dissatisfied, they demanded formal identification. And through a fluke years earlier, Burns was already sitting on indelible proof.

“I lost a bet during an enormous night out with college buddies in 1996, soon after got Jamal,” Burns explains as matter-of-factly as possible. “I had to get the tortoise tattooed on my, um, right butt cheek. …

“I pulled down my pants and, pointing at the tattoo of Jamal, I said, ‘This is the only document I have.’ They mumbled something about crazy gringos, shouted ‘viva México,’ and sent me on my way.”

The rest of the trip was wonderfully uneventful. Yet only a few weeks after arriving in Virginia, Jamal faced more drama.

Burns and his fiancée Kate were living in an apartment in Charlottesville, where Jamal stayed inside during the cold winters. Indoor privileges, however, also posed a potty-training challenge.

Though his species prefers dry conditions, Jamal enjoys the sound of rain when relieving himself, Burns explains.

“To avoid mishaps, Billy would put him in the bathtub and run the water with the drain open,” Kate recalls. “One day, Billy was gone and Jamal farted, so I put him in the tub with the water running.”

Kate returned to her desk upstairs. “The water’s running, I’m doing my work and I forgot about him,” she confesses.

Meanwhile, Jamal unwittingly closed the drain with his foot. He couldn’t escape as the water rose.

“I heard something downstairs. I realized he’d been in the tub about a half hour. I ran in, and he’s up to his mouth in water—he’s up on his tippy toes, straining his neck, he almost drowned!” Kate recalls.

An even-closer brush with death came in 2007 while still in Virginia. The neighbor’s German Shepherd tunneled under the fence and grabbed Jamal with his powerful jaws.

“It was attempted murder. It was terrible,” Burns says. “The dog had him in his mouth like a football and was trying to shake him to death.”

Hearing the commotion, the neighbor rescued Jamal, who was traumatized but unhurt. “He stayed in his shell, so to speak, for a day and a half. He seemed to rebound quickly,” Burns says.

Another scare came in 2009 after Burns had finished school and was living again in Antigua.

“Billy wanted us to take Jamal for three or four days while their house was being fumigated,” says Burns’ sister, Bobbi Nicholas, who also lives in Antigua. “They were worried the fumes might affect Jamal.”

Nicholas got home late one afternoon from the capital. “I couldn’t find him in the yard … it was getting dark. I couldn’t look any longer and went to bed.”

Wearing pajamas and yellow Crocs, Nicholas embarked on a frantic search the next morning, this time going up and down the street in case Jamal had managed to sneak out front.

“I looked like a complete crazy person,” she recalls. “I was in tears and hyperventilating.”

Dejected, Nicholas returned home and looked out the kitchen window. Behold: “There he was in his spot, basking in the sun! I ran out and said, ‘Jamal! I’ve never been so happy to see you.’ ”

Since then, Jamal has enjoyed life pretty much without incident—although he was taken aback when Burns and his wife adopted a 60-pound black Lab mix.

“He didn’t come out of his shell for three or four days. Now they’re fine together,” Burns says.

With a life expectancy of up to 100 years, Jamal eventually may be the pet of a future grandchild of 35-year-old Burns.

Meanwhile, Burns is confident that Jamal will be safe from any more harrowing moments.

“He’ll probably get his driver’s license taken away for driving too slowly, but that’s about it,” Burns muses.

“Overall, I think he’s going to continue to be happy living life in the slow lane.”

One comment

  • Ben Dysart


    ‘Twas good getting the history on Jamal. I know life is interesting there in Guatemala. Say “hi” to Kate from her Aunt Betty and myself.

    How’s the craft brewery coming along? Up and running? Last report I had was at wedding a year ago. Is it available in the US? If so, I’ll check it out. I have a friend who’s into fine high-gravity craft brews. I know he’d like to try it.

    Very best regards …


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