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The college tortoise that has taken over my life

I celebrated May Day in a pretty unorthodox way: I adopted a tortoise. Or more accurately, I took her over – with a group of friends. Minutes after dragging myself out of bed bleary-eyed at 11 am, we were navigating corridors whilst carrying a vivarium like in a scene from ChuckleVision. The newest resident of the annexe, carried behind us in a shoebox filled with soil, was Aristurtle (Aris to her friends), the St Peter’s College pet. Matriculating in 2012, she is a Horsefield tortoise with a significant underbite, approximately 15 years old, loves raspberries, and hates baths. These were the facts I knew about Aristurtle, but there is so much more to her (and to being a tortoise custodian) than I could ever have imagined on that hungover Wednesday morning.

Aristurtle has always had an almost mystical hold over her custodians. To one former custodian, she is his “baby girl”. We take her into college to roam the grass, and he soon prints across the quad to hold and stroke her on the shell. This isn’t uncommon. Our custodian group chat goes back nearly a decade. Another former custodian – who graduated four years ago – attends every Tortoise Fair. The tortoise-tortoise keeper relationship quickly becomes a fascination; it turns out that living with and caring for a surprisingly complex animal creates a bond that, although Aristurtle may be unaware of its existence, is pretty enduring. 

That’s not to say that caring for a tortoise is the most pleasant experience. Tortoises smell, they nip, they climb into your shoes and up the legs of your trousers. My friend Rhea, in whose room Aris is currently resident, has accustomed herself to the noises throughout the night, but remains baffled at our girl’s ability to get stuck inside shoes left lying on the floor. Worse than this, Aristurtle, lovely as she is, is an escape artist. Left alone, she can traverse the quad in less than two minutes in search of delicious (and toxic) daisies, or cigarette butts (equally as toxic). She requires constant supervision – so good luck writing that essay in the sunshine. But she also has her endearing habits. Her speed, annoying as it can be, won her the McEwen-Benatar Trophy for Racing Excellence last year at the Tortoise Fair, and made her a favourite for victory this year. And she’s still small, so it’s no real hardship to pick her up and carry her across the quad all the time. Plus there’s the glory of the Race.

Trinity is always a big term for Oxford’s resident tortoises. The Corpus Tortoise Fair is, of course, the highlight of the testudinal calendar. Emerging as a challenge issued from Corpus Christi to Oriel, it has been 50 years since the very first fair. A half century which has produced an impressively well-managed event. If you’ve been to the Tortoise Fair, you’ll know exactly what I mean – the team running the fair have capitalised on every opportunity to make it more than just a race between some (admittedly slow) reptiles; you can buy merch with custom artwork, enjoy Pimm’s while listening to a poem written especially for the event, and even place a bet to back your favourite tortoise. This year’s Fair, threatened by rain, saw a sad defeat for Aristurtle, but a heartwarming victory for the newcomer, Kale from Nuffield. Aristurtle will always have her place in tortoise racing history regardless. Actually, perhaps this is the most rewarding aspect of being a custodian, too: the knowledge that you are part of the history of the tortoise, one in a chain of custodians stretching back through the years, with many more to come after you. I like to think that in 50 years someone will see our 2024 JCR photo, spot Aristurtle in the front row, and compare her to the larger, older tortoise sitting in a wooden box in their room. One can dream.

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