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Up-close with Henry, DeKalb's runaway tortoise

DeKalb man talks tortoise care, community effort to find pet

DeKALB – Jerry Seablom knelt in the backyard of his Colby Court home Wednesday and placed a tomato in front of Henry, his pet 17-year-old African sulcata tortoise.

Henry, suddenly famous after a plodding walkabout that ended when he was found on Saturday, gobbled up the sweet treat from the fenced-in confines of the backyard.

Seablom, 49, lost Henry when the tortoise escaped Oct. 1 after a friend accidentally left the gate open. The story of the runaway reptile inspired community support and a search effort, which ended Saturday when Rick Shott found Henry munching on weeds in a soybean field near River Heights Golf Course.

Now safely back home, self-professed animal lover Seablom is expressing his gratitude to the DeKalb community, reminiscing about 17 years with Henry and all the other animals in his care, including his Maine Coon cat, Handsome, who hangs out with Henry in the backyard.

Q: What is it about that tomato he loves so much? I know you said they should only be given tomatoes as a rare treat.
A: I don't know, he's just always been attracted to the color red.

Q: How did you come to own an African Sulcata tortoise? Have you always wanted an exotic pet?
A: It's funny, I wasn't going to get a sulcata tortoise. I was looking for a Leopard tortoise. They're smaller, and have a different pattern on them. But I was impatient and [the Wheaton reptile swap] didn't have any, so I was like, "I'll get a sulcata."

Q: What's a reptile swap?
A: You go in and pay $5 to get in, and there's all kinds of different vendors that sell reptiles. I'm a total animal person. I like every animal under the sun. I have birds, cats, a scarlet macaw and a blue and gold macaw. I had peekapoos and a huskie, they just passed away a couple months ago but lived to be 17. My cat lived to 24, also.

Q: Did you know anything about tortoises before that? What type of care does he need?
A: I did a lot of research. When I first got him he was a hatchling, the size of a 50-cent piece. They can live to be over 100 years old. As soon as it starts getting into the evening, he hunkers down. They come from Africa, a desert climate.

Q: What does he do all day?
A: During the summer, he basically just walks constantly around the yard. When he was younger, he was too small to have him do that. But he basically paces around the whole yard, he rams into stuff out here because he likes to ram it and it keeps him busy.

Q: What does Henry eat, besides tomatoes?
A: Grass. He's a herbivore. He likes dandelions, leaves, and Timothy hay.

Q: Any advice for fellow tortoise owners?
A: Do your research. You've got to be careful with tortoises, because if you overfeed them, they get this pyramiding, and he slightly has it. Before I knew about that, when he was younger, I was just feeding him like crazy. But some have it terrible, it just deforms their shells. That shell is so sensitive, if you go up and touch it, he can feel you.

They do need to be soaked. As they get older it's not quite as crucial, but when they're younger they need to be soaked at least once in week in water. You kind of put it up to their shell.

Q: Tell us about the moment you realized Henry was found by Rick Shott. Five days out on the chilly fall temperatures, we know you were worried about that.

A: It was cool. The night before, he called me and was like "I saw your post." I didn't know him. He asked, "You want me to come and help you look tomorrow for him?" So tomorrow comes and he called and I couldn't go out the time he was there. So he still went out and looked. About a half-hour later he calls me and he's like, "I found him." I was like, "Get out of here."

Q: What does it mean to you to have so much community support in the search? Word of Henry's walkabout traveled pretty far.

A: There was groups of people for days looking, including myself and the DeKalb Park District staff. I have nothing but high words for them because they were so awesome. And same to the community, the community really just rallied around in support. I was kind of shocked.

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