One of the original residents of the Sedgwick County Zoo — a 508-pound “shellebrity” who has lived in other zoos across the country for the past 13 years — is finally home.
Rocket, a 90-year-old 508-pound Aldabra tortoise who left Wichita when he became a skilled escape artist in 2009, returned to town in May and has been on display since mid-June.
But his fans are just starting to realize he’s back, in part because he’s one of the most visible and eye-catching animals on display in the zoo’s new Safari Express. The electric train, which began offering rides last month, winds past Rocket’s new escape-proof enclosure just before returning to the station at the end of its tour. Those driving in the late afternoon are likely to catch a glimpse of the hard-to-miss Rocket snoozing in the shade in the corner of his yard closest to the track.
Now that he’s back, Rocket—who was one of the animals on display when Wichita’s zoo first opened 50 years ago—has reclaimed his place as the zoo’s senior statesman. No other animal living there is older – although several are heavier and most are faster.
Rocket was already 40 years old when he arrived at the Sedgwick County Zoo in 1972, taken over from a private owner. He was one of 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 turned into a sneaky seven-year-old. At age 78, he was 609 pounds of mischief and so big that he could fight his way out of the indoor exhibit in the amphibian and reptile building. Keepers would often arrive in the morning to see him wandering around the building, and it was a long, arduous process to lead him back through the outer gate that would take him to the exhibit without the aid of heavy machinery.
The zookeepers decided Rocket would have to move temporarily until a new amphibian and reptile building could be added — perhaps three to five years, they estimated at the time. Rocket said goodbye to his turtle friends Speed, Missy and Washington and moved to the Tulsa Zoo, where he joined the Aldabra turtle herd.
That’s when Chris Williams, the zoological manager of ectotherms at Sedgwick County Zoo, met Rocket. He then worked at the Tulsa Zoo and Rocket became one of his wards.
Rocket didn’t change much when he arrived in Tulsa, Williams recalls with a laugh. He soon learned to break out of his enclosure there, too, and Tulsa had to adapt the exhibit to keep him inside. Just a few years later — in 2014 — Rocket moved again, this time landing at New York’s Bronx Zoo, where he became one of the star residents of that zoo’s new giant tortoise exhibit.
But Rocket was always on loan, and recently the Sedgwick County Zoo decided it was time for him to come home. Although the zoo never got its new amphibian and reptile building, new housing became available. Rocket and his two new roommates — 12-year-old Galapagos tortoises named Ynez and Soledad — live away from the zoo’s other turtles in the amphibian and reptile building, and are instead housed in the former anteater enclosure, which is in Australia. /South area. American habitat near the main train station. (One of the zoo’s giant anteaters recently passed away, and the keepers decided the other one would be disturbed too much by noises from the new train. That anteater is currently not on display.)
The turtles don’t mind the train. They’re too busy eating every leaf in their new exhibit, which they’ve essentially mown with their mouths since moving into it.
Williams said he can’t say if Rocket is happy to be home. He is a quiet guy who conserves his energy for the years ahead. At 90, he may be only middle-aged. Scientists believe that giant tortoises can live up to 200 years. The oldest 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) friend, who has a mind of his own.
“He’s very outgoing and actually a bit stubborn,” Williams said. “He does what he wants. He goes where he wants. He knows he weighs 500 pounds.”