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Tortoise 'farm' is colony for endangered species

BIRD ISLAND -- Many are the stories about the pet owner who fell for the pleading eyes of a puppy dog, only to have the animal take over his home and life.

Glen Jacobsen and his wife, Donna, can sympathize, only in their case it was a box turtle.

Today, their home in the countryside south of Bird Island has become the Jacobsen Tortoise Farm. Yes, their backyard holds the requisite, small pond for the turtles they keep.

But the farm's real purpose is seen behind a fenced enclosure where tortoises both large and small have free range through the summer months. Burmese Mountain tortoises, some of them weighing up to 50 pounds, share their corner of Renville County with colorful red-footed tortoises from South America, sulcata tortoises from Africa, star tortoises from southeast Asia, and other hard- and soft-shelled strangers to northern climes, including pancake and leopard tortoises.

Come winter, these reptiles move indoors with their Minnesota hosts. Much of the Jacobsen's basement is devoted to the enclosed pens that re-create the favored habitats of these very different tortoises. The Burmese Mountain tortoises stay content through the Minnesota winter by dining in a pen filled with alfalfa and treats like pumpkins and other gourds. In contrast, the pancake tortoises keep to a sand-and-grass filled pen more like their native grassland range in Africa. A salad bowl-like mix of different greens is always within a claw's grasp.

Suspended above each of the pens are special, globed-lamps. Like the summer sun, they radiate both the heat and ultra-violet radiation that are essential to the health of these cold-blooded creatures.

"It's a hobby gone out of control,'' laughed Donna, speaking of her husband's interest in all things chelonian.

It's become more than a hobby, as evidenced by the 20-kilowatt Jacob's wind turbine erected on the farm this last autumn. Its purpose is to tap the winter winds and produce the electricity needed to keep the artificial suns glowing above these tortoises.

Jacobsen, the assistant county attorney in Renville County, is using the prairie wind to keep the electric bills in check.

But the wind turbine is also part of his commitment to assure the survival of these creatures, should the power go out.

Many of the tortoises he keeps and protects are endangered. Their native habitat is disappearing as the human population grows.

Rare and endangered turtles and tortoises are also under increasing pressure by those wanting them for their economic value. Turtles have long been valued in China, said Jacobsen. The rapid rise of the middle class in China has meant a sudden explosion in demand for turtles that is being felt worldwide.

It's one of many lessons that Jacobsen has gleaned from his more than two decades-long "hobby'' in all things tortoise. It has provided him the lens with which to see many of the conservation issues of today.

Jacobsen's own predilection happens to be for Burmese Mountain tortoises. He is one of only 15 or 20 known "keepers'' of these Southeast Asian tortoises in the U.S.

Like those protecting heirloom seeds, Jacobsen and other keepers protect the genetics of the different subspecies of Burmese Mountain tortoises in separate colonies. They protect their animals, keep track of their parentage and genetics, and encourage their reproduction.

His experience has also made him a source of information for others looking to raise and keep tortoises and turtles. He's authored articles for newsletters and spoken to groups through his membership and roles in organizations such as the Minnesota Herpetological Society, the national Turtle Survival Alliance, and the World Chelonian Trust.

He's also helped with legal issues as a practicing attorney. He's been involved in legal matters ranging from the commercial raising of turtles in Louisiana to the difficulties placed on the ownership of turtles as pets in the U.S.

Jacobsen began his education in reptiles shortly after his new bride wanted a pet, and he pointed out his allergies to all things fur and feather. The newlyweds settled on a pet snake, which then led to their membership in the Minnesota Herpetological Society. One day the Society called, asking if they would adopt a box turtle that had been orphaned by its original owner.

They still keep a few snakes. Along with other members of the Minnesota Herpetological Society, they continue to show off their pet boa constrictor and ball python at the Renaissance Festival in Shakopee.

But most of their time is devoted to the tortoises, and promoting the public's understanding of these land-based creatures. Many Minnesotans do no distinguish between turtles and tortoises. Turtles need an aquatic environment and rarely venture beyond the beach.

Tortoises are found in the tropical and sub-tropical latitudes, live their lives on land, and are adapted to environments ranging from harsh, desserts environments to lush tropical forests. Jacobsen knows of tortoises with shells strong enough to hold up against the snap of a jungle cougar's bite.

He's seen video of other tortoises kicked around like a soccer ball by a herd of elephants. Game over, the tortoise sticks its head back out, rights itself, and wanders away.

The tortoises he keeps eat everything from grasses and vegetables to fruits.

Jacobsen refers to the herbivorous tortoises as "cows with shells.''

But he also cautions against any over-simplification of tortoises. We are only beginning to discover the complexities of these creatures, he said.

He discovered long ago that it's not enough to simply toss grass, alfalfa or whole heads of lettuce at the herbivorous tortoises he keeps. They need a complex mix of nutrients that they would otherwise get by selective grazing in their natural habitats.

To accommodate these needs, he orders some of his tortoise food from a California grower who specializes in raising the proper mixes.

Tortoises are far different creatures than many of us realize. He said the biggest misconception is that they are slow. They can move in a hurry, and there is much truth to the popular tale of the tortoise and the hare. The methodical, stubborn nature of tortoises serves them well, he said.

Tortoises do not seem to have a personality like a pet cat or dog, but Jacobsen said they have shown him to be much smarter animals than many would believe. He discovered the power of their memory when he removed their outdoor shelter, and several months later returned the tortoises to their enclosed yard. They headed right to where the shelter had been, and their actions betrayed their obvious surprise at its disappearance.

They know the hand that feeds them too, but Jacobsen can't say he's never seen a hint of gratitude shown towards him. None is asked. His greatest reward comes in both protecting the animals, learning about them, and those rare times when they produce eggs and he has the opportunity of "watching a baby pip out.''