Spike is an African spurred tortoise that lives at the National Butterfly Center in Mission. This image was taken before his shell was damaged in a fire in 2020. Photo courtesy National Butterfly Center

Spike had been in trouble before, but this time it was serious. It was December 2013, and he was scuttling down State Highway 495, a five-laner, in broad daylight—a dangerous course of action for anyone, much less a 10-year-old African spurred tortoise. Traffic on the freeway slowed to a slithering pace, prompting motorists to report the reptile roadblock to officials in the city of Mission. By now the scene was familiar enough in this Rio Grande Valley community of 86,000 people: Once again Spike had absconded from the residential backyard where he was kept as a pet and was finning his way through town, oblivious to all but the instinct to mate. On this occasion, animal control officers scooped Spike up from the roadway and detained him for the third time in one year. What do you do with a tortoise who’s determined to live life in the fast lane?

National Butterfly Center

Address: 3333 Butterfly Park Drive, Mission.
Phone: 956-583-5400
Website: nationalbutterflycenter.org
Hours: Open daily, except Easter. 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

Admission: Adults $10; children, ages 5-12 $5

In Spike’s defense, he’s had a hard life. He was born into the exotic pet trade, where non-native African spurred tortoises are either brought to the United States from Africa or bred here to be sold as pets. Reports of escaped tortoises aren’t uncommon in Texas, but Spike was especially determined to live on the lam. Formerly he’d been the pet of a 9-year-old boy, and as the boy grew, so did Spike. When the boy became a young man and went off to college, however, Spike was left in the lurch. Still he grew—weighing about 80 pounds by 2013—and was relegated to the backyard, where wooden fence pickets stood no chance of containing him.

Spike’s family was ready to be rid of him, so authorities shipped him off to the National Butterfly Center, where executive director Marianna Wright had offered to give him a home. The 100-square-acre wildlife preserve on the U.S.-Mexico border is home to 340 species of butterflies, along with a bevy of other critters large and small. For some species, it’s the last place of refuge in a region that’s seen explosive development in the last decade—on both sides of the border. Spike may chafe at being called domesticated, but the creatures here are even wilder than he.

That being the case, a tortoise enclosure was built in the preserve’s back gardens by driving sawed-off telephone poles into the ground and anchoring them with cement. The fence is only 3 feet tall, but it’s sturdy. A halved tractor tire was buried to create a soaking pool; tortoises can’t swim, but they do enjoy a source of shallow water for making mud. A wooden home—not unlike a doghouse, with Spike’s name painted above the front door—was built at the eastern end of the enclosure under the shade of a Guamuchil tree. “We studied up and learned everything we needed for his care,” Wright says.

Visitors on the palapa enjoyed eating lunch with Spike, who showed his sweet side in return for offerings of strawberries and lettuce. He was even fun to watch as he basked in the South Texas sun. Spike was an instant hit, starring in a TV advertisement and quickly becoming a mascot for the butterfly center. For a moment, it seemed as if Spike’s troubles were behind him.

Spike can be found freely roaming the grounds at the butterfly center. Photo by Danielle Lopez

That changed on March 23, 2020. A fire broke out inside Spike’s enclosure, quickly igniting the dense vegetation surrounding it and spreading to Spike’s house. As Mission firefighters rushed to put out the blaze, Spike managed to escape to his soaking pool, which protected his lower body from the blistering heat. His home was destroyed—it appears that it caught fire with him still inside—and was set to smolder. Spike’s own injuries took longer to present, but they were even more devastating. “It wasn’t until days after that we saw that he was singed, that he couldn’t breathe,” Wright says.

A medical exam showed third-degree burns on Spike’s face, nostrils, and neck. Internally, the fire ravaged his esophagus and lungs, causing permanent respiratory damage. But the worst injury was sustained by his shell, where the blackened scales loosened from the carapace, sloughing off and leaving Spike looking like a roof with no shingles. Tortoises can’t regrow their scales, and without them, the sensitive dermis underneath is revealed. It’s thin enough to show the rising and falling of Spike’s breath. The area is vulnerable to injury now; think of losing a fingernail and going about your daily business with an exposed nail bed. The scales are also critical in regulating body temperature, functioning like mini solar panels that trap heat. Since the fire, Spike has required more human care to maintain a safe internal temperature—when winter temperatures drop to the 40s in the Valley, staff cover him with a blanket (or put on his custom Snuggie). This type of intensive care helps, Wright says. But to live a long, full life, Spike needs a new shell.

As Spike recuperated from his injuries, forces beyond his control were finally working in his favor. In late 2020, Wright received an email from Clint Borucki, the owner of a custom fabrication shop in Elgin, Illinois. Borucki said he’d heard of the tortoise’s plight, 1,500 miles away. Borucki asked if he could try to build the tortoise a prosthetic shell, a la prosthetic flippers for dolphins and beaks for birds. No one’s ever built a prosthetic tortoise shell like this before, but such an invention would be transformative for Spike and other injured tortoises. For the first time in a long time, Spike’s life story would read less like Job and more like Lazarus. Or even better, Spike Austin, the $6 million tortoise: We have the technology. Can we rebuild him?

The center eagerly brought Borucki onboard (it helped that he offered to work pro bono), beginning a three-year collaboration that’s expected to bear fruit this summer, when his company delivers the long-awaited prototype. It’s taken a while for things to come together—this isn’t fast fashion. First they had to create a model, and for that, Spike was trucked to the visitor center, where the chartreuse floor makes for a handy green screen. A thin measuring tape was pulled around the circumference of Spike’s shell; a one-inch grid was made on top with blue painters tape. Staff members fired off cellphone photos like paparazzi, capturing the tortoise from every conceivable angle. The pictures were then sent to Borucki in Illinois, where he fed them into a computer rendering program using a process called photogrammetry. The end result is a 3D replica of Spike’s shell that can be fabricated by an industrial printer.

Though Wright and Borucki have made great progress, one of the shell’s features is still undecided. And it’s a biggie. They still haven’t settled on the material they’ll use to construct the prosthesis. It has to be durable—given Spike’s propensity for ramming into wooden fences—but also flexible and lightweight, so it can move with the rest of his body. It has to be permeable, too, to allow for airflow and prevent mold. After three years of spitballing, they’ve run through a myriad of options, including fiberglass, Legos, and reinforced fabric. Their current plan uses a molded resin material, Borucki says. The prototype he’s preparing will be mailed flat for assembly in Texas, where they can check the fit before manufacturing the real thing. “It’d be nice to give him some quality of life,” Borucki says. “I don’t want him to go through summer without something covering him.”

Otherwise, Spike has bounced back from the fire. The round-the-clock care provided by Wright and her staff have kept him in high spirits. “We spend time with Spike because he knows us and recognizes us,” she says. “He’s like a giant exothermic puppy.” He’s in a new, safer enclosure, complete with a new house with his name above the door. It’s been a long road to recovery. It was only last fall that Spike’s last damaged scale fell off, more than three years after the fire—and just in time for his 21st birthday party in December. A Girl Scout troop showed up to celebrate with the tortoise, who’s proven to be a real softy underneath the tough exterior. Spike scarfed down a cake made of watermelon, strawberries, and red apples as a throng of adorning fans cheered him on—and he didn’t once try to run away. With friends like these, why would he?

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