Powell's Peggy Heffelmire volunteers at Columbus Zoo as ‘tortoise snuggler’

Erica Thompson
ThisWeek group
Peggy Heffelmire, a volunteer and "tortoise snuggler" at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, brushes the shell of an Aldabra Tortoise.

Tortoises need spa days, too.

Originally from the Aldabra atoll in the Indian Ocean, Bubba, 73, and Sonny, 53, have found a home at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. About three days a week, they receive a couple hours of pampering, which includes neck and leg rubs.

The people in charge of providing this service are known as “tortoise snugglers,” and it’s a job zoo volunteer Peggy Heffelmire of Powell relishes.

"The fact that I get to interact with them and help with their care is an amazing privilege and joy," she said. "They respond to my touch and voice. The fact that they can live so long is incredible, and sharing that information with the guests in the summer is always uplifting." 

Although it is special treatment for the reptiles, it’s more about stimulation than relaxation.

“The keepers noticed that when they are in for the winter, their environment is not as stimulating as it is outdoors, and they become a little sluggish,” said Heffelmire, 66, who is the leader of the zoo’s Shores Region, where the tortoises live. “They respond to us. ... They stand up and start moving around more.”

The activity improves the creatures' appetites and reminds them to use the bathroom, she said. Heffelmire also brushes their shells, which keeps them healthy.

"I constantly talk to the tortoises," she said. "I greet them, ask how they are, tell them how wonderful they are, talk about current events, the weather, etc. Sometimes I sing, but I'm not a great singer; the animal-care staff will play music for them." 

The Aldabra tortoise is the second-largest tortoise in the world; the largest is the Galapagos tortoise. Bubba — the oldest animal at the zoo — weighs 535 pounds; Sonny weighs about 450 pounds. Both are male.

Peggy Heffelmire, a volunteer and "tortoise snuggler" at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, brushes the shell of an Aldabra Tortoise.

The tortoises, previously on display outdoors, must be moved indoors when temperatures fall below 55 degrees. Whether the public can visit them now depends on the weather, as there isn't enough space inside for social distancing amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

According to the zoo website, Aldabras are threatened because their habitats are being cleared for agriculture and development purposes. Additionally, goats, pigs, cattle and other animals are being introduced to the area, and they are preying on native species.

Zoo officials say that not all tortoises require “snuggling.”

“These two particular tortoises (Bubba and Sonny) like their attention,” said zoo curator Becky Ellsworth. “They like human interaction. ... They’re divas, I guess you could say.”

Ellsworth said people don’t always realize reptiles can have big personalities, and the tortoises are no exception. By working with them one-on-one, Heffelmire has come to know their demeanors.

“Lately, (Bubba’s) been quite interactive and friendly, but sometimes we feel he can be a little grumpy,” she said. “Sonny will be the one to come up to the fence (and greet guests).”

Heffelmire said she has been an animal-lover since childhood. The youngest of four girls, she was the one bringing home critters and caring for pets, including turtles, fish, dogs and birds. She moved to Columbus from northeast Ohio to be closer to her grandchildren, who also relish the zoo.

After retiring from the real estate industry, Heffelmire became a volunteer in 2013. She has gone through training and worked in multiple regions at the zoo; she also helps with its Twilight Tours and Night Hikes.

“Different animals speak to different people, and sometimes it changes,” Heffelmire said. “You work in an area, and then you’ll have an experience with that animal and realize that you would enjoy learning more about them and working with them, if it’s possible. I very much enjoy all things shores – the aquarium, the manatees, the flamingoes.”

She does the tortoise snuggling twice a month, rotating with other volunteers, and overall she works nine hours per week at the zoo, she said.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the zoo employed about 850 active volunteers. Currently, that number is down to about 350. But they remain important, whether they are educating the public or doing less glamorous jobs like cleaning and landscaping.

“They are pretty much the eyes and ears of our animal-care staff,” volunteer manager Ginger Early said. “They know the animals’ names, birthdays, likes and dislikes, and they can tell when an animal isn’t acting right.”

Heffelmire said the keys to being a successful volunteer are patience and a positive attitude. And her colleagues say she sets a good example.

“She is always so happy,” Early said. “You can tell that she genuinely likes to be here; she likes to help. The zoo sometimes gets a little crazy, and things change at the last minute, but Peggy is always able to roll with the punches, and I’ve never seen her lose her cool or get angry.”

That might be because Heffelmire said she is having fun.

“You make great friends, and you learn so much,” she said. “And it’s great just to feel that you’re helping.”

ethompson@dispatch.com

@miss_ethompson