By ELIZABETH VALENTE, Valley Community Newspaper writer
He may be short, he may be slow, and his fading grey is a tell-tale sign of his age, but what do you expect … he is an 85-year-old, 20-pound tortoise.
As the Sacramento Zoo celebrated its 85th anniversary on July 28, Herkimer the tortoise also celebrated his 85th year of life.
“A desert tortoise can live to over 120 years old,” said Brooke Coe, Sacramento Zoo education specialist. “He lives in our Interpretive Center where he participates in stage shows and goes out with the ‘Zoomobile’ to schools and is involved in other education programs.”
Because there are no official records as to Herkimer’s real birth date, the Sacramento Zoo has designated July 28 as his official/unofficial birthday and therefore threw him a birthday party, coinciding with the zoo’s 85th anniversary.
In 90-degree heat, nearly 2,000 people roamed around Sacramento Zoo, celebrating the 28th annual Ice Cream Safari.
With all-you-can-eat Baskin Robbins ice cream and Coca-Cola beverages, kids and adults were crawling all over the 14-acre zoo.
This family-fun event wasn’t just about the sugary treats. There were plenty of other fun activities, including animal spotlights, face painting and zoo games. All of the Sacramento Zoo’s animals were on display throughout the event.
While members celebrated the Zoo’s 85th birthday with ice cream and cake, Herkimer celebrated in his own style – with his favorite treat of dandelion flowers.
“Sometimes you will see zoo keepers kicking dandelion seed heads on zoo grounds so that we can grow more for him,” Coe said. “This is probably the only place you will find someone actually trying to grow dandelions.”
A tortoise’s journey
Zoo officials say Herkimer’s life probably began as someone’s household pet in Southern California during World War I. During that time, Herkimer traveled across the country to the East Coast, living in a little shoebox.
This could explain his name, Herkimer. During the war, the tanks were made and brought overseas from Herkimer, New York.
Eventually Herkimer the tortoise trekked back again to Northern California by the mid-1960s.
“The original owners had him for a very long time and after 40 years of living with the same family, they believed it was time to retire him and brought him here to the Sacramento Zoo,” Coe said. “Because of his size and approximate time when his owners took him from the wild, we were able to make an educated guess on his age.”
Herkimer did travel to the Sacramento Zoo with his wife, ‘Grandma,’ who passed away 10 years ago at the ripe age of 90. Herkimer’s son still lives at the zoo with him. Together they move slowly, in sync.
Coe believes tortoises are long-lived because they are vegetarians, they move slowly and are gentle.
“I expect he’ll be around for at least another 20-plus years,” she said.
The evening event was a little late for Herkimer to be out, but people were still drawn to many of the bigger, more active exhibits.
“Pretty popular are the black and white lemurs, the giraffes, because they are so big, and the large cats,” said zoo spokeswoman Tonja Swank. “But some people are also are drawn to the exotic birds or reptiles.”
Strolling past the flamingos, lions, tigers and giraffes, some said the event was a great family bonding experience.
“It helps keep the kids active and away from the TV,” said Bay Area resident Tainisha Errico. “This is the first time we’ve been here.”
Young dad Xavier Ynostroza said he plans to make zoo visits a family honored tradition.
“My parents use to bring me here all the time growing up and I loved it,” Ynostroza said. “I know the boys will too. It makes people want to engage more with their kids’ learning experience.”
According to staff, nearly 400 volunteers were on hand at the event, hundreds of them scooping out nearly 1,000 gallons of ice cream.
All proceeds from Ice Cream Safari benefited the general maintenance, conservation programs, education and animal care at the zoo, which is home to more than 450 native, rare and endangered animals.
Open since 1927, the Sacramento Zoo, located near the corner of Land Park Drive and Sutterville Road in William Land Park, is managed by the non-profit Sacramento Zoological Society.