Some Summerville residents had an unexpected encounter with a 65-year-old African sulcata tortoise on Friday.
Franklin, an active and endlessly hungry spurred tortoise, munched on lettuce in a grassy area at the far end of the parking lot of the Walmart on North Main Street as strangers flocked toward him with a mixture of awe and excitement on their faces.
A toddler sat on Franklin’s back as he lumbered forward to find more lettuce pieces on the ground.
Franklin is owned by Randy Gallagher, a native of Calabash, North Carolina. Gallagher, better known as, “the turtle man,” has rescued dozens of tortoises from people who buy them as pets but later realize the animal is not so easy to keep. Or cheap to feed.
“That one will eat over $150 in Romaine lettuce every day,” Gallagher said as he gestured toward Franklin. “He loves lettuce.”
He said most people buy African spurred tortoises when they are small hatchlings but they are the third-largest species of tortoise in the world and can grow to almost three feet long and weigh over 200 pounds.
Gallagher is retired and spends most of his time traveling throughout the southeast to pick up the animals from owners who can no longer keep them. He also stops for hours at the time in parking lots or other public spaces to ask for donations to help pay for food for the tortoises- which he views as family members instead of pets.
In addition to Franklin, Gallagher’s three-year-old Aldabra tortoise, Joe, also meandered through the grass as people bravely reached out to touch his shell.
Gallagher has loved turtles since he was a child. He fondly remembers a few occasions when he was kicked out of school because he brought one of his pet reptiles into the classroom. He has cared for dozens of rescued tortoises at his home in Calabash. He owns three that are over 50 years old.