MISSION — Spike, the National Butterfly Center’s resident African spurred tortoise, returned home from the veterinary office Thursday and is expected to make a full recovery after sustaining minor burns escaping a fire in his enclosure last week.
Mariana Trevino-Wright, executive director for the center, said the fire happened Monday afternoon.
“We assume he was resting in his house when the fire started, because he’s normally in there in the heat of the day, that’s his shady spot,” she said.
Spike dashed from the inferno and slid into the nearest source of water.
“He was smart enough to get out of his house and into his pool,” Trevino-Wright said. “I guess his instincts kicked in, because unfortunately tortoises experience things like wildfires.”
A groundskeeper noticed the fire and the center’s employees rushed to Spike’s aid.
“We got the blaze extinguished with the water hose and then the firefighters arrived to help us with that,” Trevino-Wright said. “They also turned all the organic material in there, dried leaves, branches, bedding, everything that was in there to make sure nothing was smoldering. And they helped us soak Spike pretty well, and also load him in the truck to carry him to the vet.”
Spike’s house appears to be a total loss, but he emerged relatively unscathed.
“You could tell that Spike was a little traumatized,” Trevino-Wright said. “We were mostly concerned about smoke inhalation and any potential damage to his lungs or even his throat, and apparently things did get pretty hot in there. He did have some scorching on his feet and the edges of the shell and his beak, which is his face/mouth area, they call that a beak — like a bird.”
According to Trevino-Wright, Spike spent most of the week at the vet’s office.
“They’ve been putting the antibiotic ointment on his feet and beak, and giving him injections of antibiotics, just in case his lungs were compromised in any way, we didn’t want him to get pneumonia,” she said.
Trevino-Wright said she’s not sure what started the fire. Spike, after all, didn’t leave his oven on and he’s not a smoker.
“We’re not 100% sure what happened. He’s got a lot of hay in his enclosure, and he urinates and defecates, so organic stuff could be a source, especially given the temperature outside,” she said. “Droplets of water can refract light and maybe start something. We also had power tools in the vicinity that might have been hot.”
Spike was slated to return to the center Thursday to convalesce at a newly built home.
“We’re in the process of building his new expanded enclosure, so when he returns he will go into his new and improved, much larger home,” Trevino-Wright said.
According to Trevino-Wright, Spike will remain on antibiotics for the next two weeks.
“We will have to trick him into taking those with strawberries,” she said. “He’s expected to make a full recovery.”
Trevino-Wright says Spike came to the center six years ago after a few run-ins with the law. Spike was originally purchased by a local couple for their son’s ninth birthday.
“Spike grew and grew and grew and grew, and wound up being moved into their yard, where he repeatedly knocked down their fence,” Trevino-Wright said. “Mission Animal Control kept picking Spike up walking down 495. The last time animal control picked him up and called the family, the family said, ‘Don’t bring him back.’”
The butterfly center adopted Spike as a model for the Texas Tortoise, which is illegal to own, and as a living learning tool about nature in general.
Trevino-Wright says the tortoise also provides a valuable lesson in the downsides of the exotic animal trade.
“He may be American born, born and bred in captivity, but he is an African species … We want people to understand that wild animals should be left in the wild and the exotic pet trade — even of laboratory-bred animals like Spike — is not a good thing,” she said. “Most people cannot take good care of an exotic animal well and properly for that animal’s expected lifetime, and that’s what happened to Spike.”
At 17, Spike will be helping teach those lessons at the center for many years to come.
“African spurred tortoises typically live to be 100 or older, so he is basically a teenage boy right now,” Trevino-Wright said.
The National Butterfly Center closed Friday because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Trevino-Wright says Spike will be entertaining guests at his new enclosure whenever the global crisis comes to an end.
“When we open we want to invite everyone out to come see him in his new home and bring him romaine lettuce and apples and strawberries and watermelons, his favorite foods, when we’re all free to move about the county again,” she said.