One of the Sedgwick County Zoo’s original residents — a 508-pound “shellebrity” who has been living at other zoos across the country for the past 13 years — is finally back home.
Rocket, a 90-year-old, 508-pound Aldabra tortoise who left Wichita once he became a skilled escape artist in 2009, returned to town in May and has been back on display since mid-June.
But his fans have just started to realize he’s back, partially because he’s one of the most visible, most notable animals visible from the zoo’s new Safari Express. The electric train, which started offering rides last month, takes a swing past Rocket’s new escape-proof enclosure just before it returns to the station at the end of its tour. Those who ride in the later afternoons are likely to catch a glimpse of the hard-to-miss Rocket napping in the shade in the corner of his yard closest to the train track.
Now that he’s back, Rocket — who was among the animals on display when Wichita’s zoo first opened 50 years ago — has retaken his place as the elder statesman of the zoo. No other animal resident there is older — though several are heavier and most are faster.
Rocket was already 40 years old when he arrived at the Sedgwick County Zoo in 1972, acquired from a private owner. He was among the very first animals to move in, along with Sweetie Pie the hippo and Stephanie the elephant, both of whom still live at the zoo.
But by 2009, Rocket had become a sneaky septuagenarian. At age 78, he was 609 pounds of mischief and so big that he was able to climb his way out of the indoor exhibit at the amphibian and reptile building. Keepers would frequently arrive in the morning to find him wandering free in the building, and herding him back through the outdoor gate that would return him to the exhibit without the aid of heavy machinery was a long, arduous process.
The zookeepers decided that Rocket needed to make a temporary move until a new amphibian and reptile building could be added — maybe three to five years, they estimated at the time. Rocket said goodbye to his tortoise friends Speed, Missy and Washington and moved to the Tulsa Zoo, where he joined its Aldabra tortoise herd.
That’s when Chris Williams — Sedgwick County Zoo’s zoological manager of ectotherms — met Rocket. He was working at the Tulsa zoo then, and Rocket became one of his wards.
Rocket didn’t change much when he arrived in Tulsa, Williams remembers with a laugh. He soon learned to escape his enclosure there, too, and Tulsa had to modify its exhibit to keep him in. Just a few years later —in 2014 — Rocket moved again, this time landing at the Bronx Zoo in New York, where he became one of the star residents of that zoo’s new giant tortoise exhibit.
But Rocket was always just on loan, and recently, the Sedgwick County Zoo decided it was time for him to come home. Though the zoo never got its new amphibian and reptile building, a new enclosure became available. Rocket and his two new roommates — 12-year-old Galapagos tortoises named Ynez and Soledad — are living away from the zoo’s other tortoises in the amphibian and reptile building and instead are in the the former anteater enclosure, which is in the Australia/South American habitat near the main train station. (One of the zoo’s giant anteaters recently died, and keepers decided the other would be too disturbed by noises coming from the new train. That anteater is currently not on exhibit.)
The tortoises don’t mind the train a bit. They’re too busy eating every leaf in sight in their new exhibit, which they’ve essentially mowed down with their mouths since moving in.
Williams said he can’t tell if Rocket is happy to be home. He’s a low-key guy who is saving his energy for the years ahead of him. At 90, he’s potentially only middle aged. Scientists believe giant tortoises can live up to 200 years. The oldest still living is Jonathan, a 190-year-old Seychelles giant tortoise on the South Atlantic Island of St. Helena.
But Williams said he was happy to be reunited with his old (very old) pal, who has a mind of his own.
“He’s very outgoing and actually a little bit stubborn,” Williams said. “He does what he wants. He goes where he wants. He knows he’s 500 pounds.”