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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Visitors look at Norbert, a 550-pound Aldabra tortoise who turned 50 on Sunday, as they ride the train Sunday afternoon at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.

Birthday boy rather spry, for a tortoise

– Never underestimate Norbert the Aldabra tortoise.

Yes, he looks slow and ungainly. And he looks like he’s about 100 years old. But – at least when it comes to tortoises – he’s practically a spring chicken, and when there’s food or a female involved, he can move pretty quickly. For a tortoise.

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo celebrated Norbert’s 50th birthday Sunday, putting on a party for the resident with the oldest confirmed age at the zoo. The only animal that could be older is Norbert’s partner Purdue, who is believed to be about 60, but was born in the wild so officials can’t be sure.

While Norbert may be the senior animal, by tortoise standards he’s just hitting his prime. Aldabra tortoises, named for the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles off the west coast of Africa where they live, commonly live to be 100 and have been known to live 200 years.

“He’s just middle age,” said Zookeeper Racheal Branning. “He’s pretty spry for 50.”

Indeed, Norbert has a new fence around his enclosure because the huge tortoise once managed to escape, somehow cantilevering himself over the rocks that used to ring him in. Getting him back home wasn’t easy – it took seven people to lift him.

“He can actually move pretty fast when he wants to,” Branning said. “Well, fast for a 550-pound tortoise.”

Norbert put on a display of his speed – much to officials’ chagrin – when he decided he wanted some birthday love from Purdue, just as dozens of children had lined up to sing him “Happy Birthday.” The result was an extremely slow-speed chase, punctuated by finger-pointing and giggles from the crowd, until Branning ruined the moment.

Norbert stuck his head in his shell like he was embarrassed, Purdue scrambled away, and the festivities resumed. A birthday “cake” made of his favorite foods – melon, lettuce, cucumbers and sweet potatoes – was a welcome consolation prize.

He may not be pretty – or fast – but Norbert is still a zoo favorite. Brandon Cummins, 9, likes the way the tortoise sticks his head right into his food and eats with abandon.

“He eats fast and he has a dirty mouth,” Brandon said.

Brandon’s sister, Emily Cummins, 10, can’t believe he’s 50 years old. “He looks like he’s 30,” she said.

Kathleen Wakeland, 11, likes the way he’s huge, yet compact.

“I like him because he looks like he’s big and small at the same time,” Kathleen said, while Jacob McCarty, 9, usually only gets to see him sleep. “I’m happy he’s awake,” he said.

The zoo’s last day of regular operations for the season is Oct. 14.

dstockman@jg.net

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