Old Bill, the peripatetic Mojave Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) became part of my family in 1921, when my dad, Bob, was nine years old, and found him cruising down his street near the Esplanade in Redondo Beach, where he moved in with my dad, his sister, and my grandparents.
He was estimated to be about 10 years old at that time and weighed in at 11.7 pounds. My dad, being an avid horticulturist, groomed Old Bill to savor red roses (not yellow or white, please!) and red hibiscus. He had a gourmet diet of romaine lettuce, strawberries, and rappini, often hand-fed. My brother, my cousins and I were always excited to go to Grandmother’s house to visit Old Bill. When we moved to inland Redondo, Old Bill came with us.
My dad moved to San Jose, then Pismo Beach, then San Luis Obispo, and Old Bill took the changes easily. He always hibernated during the winter (November-April) in a dark box in my dad’s enclosed back porch, no food, just sleep!
In 2005, my dad moved to my home in Topanga, bringing Old Bill with him. We built him an outdoor habitat and became involved in his daily routine. We even lost him for almost a month while constructing his fence because he was a quick escape artist. My dad was so upset at the loss, we rallied the whole community for the Search for Old Billy! Amber alert, reward offered.
He was discovered looking like a rock in a gully beside the house, and has been carefully monitored ever since. My dad passed on in 2008, putting me in charge of Old Bill, and reporting the change to Fish and Game, as he was registered with an ID as an endangered tortoise.
We enriched his diet with native plants: prickly pear tunas, apricot mallow, buckwheat, and owl’s clover, and he also seemed to relish dandelion, purple hibiscus, and carrot. My garden catered to his tastes. Old Bill would come when you called, “Billy, Billy,” and thrilled grandchildren by eating out of their hands. He also enjoyed an occasional seat on a low-volume sprinkler and had a shallow pool for basking.
I have spent my whole life interacting and enjoying Old Bill. He passed away on Thursday, April 18, 2019, leaving us feeling so empty. He was returned to the Mojave on Saturday, April 20, 2019, under the shade of a mesquite bush, near desert dandelions and creosote bush, with a Joshua tree standing as sentinel.
RIP, Old Bill. Home at last. Thank you for spending most of your 116 years with my family!