A tortoise of hair-raising size

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 5, 2013

SALISBURY — For the local residents stopping to see Randy Gallagher’s 300-pound tortoise, the experience was about as unique as one would see.
For Gallagher — oft referred to as ‘Turtle Man,’ he said — it was just another Tuesday.
After two years of constant travel, the journeyman landed in a patch of clover on the corner of Statesville Boulevard and West Innes Street.
Gallagher takes his mammoth African Land Tortoises across the nation to spread awareness for his turtle conservation near Sunset Beach, N.C.
But his main cause is watching people interact with his unique animals.
“Watching somebody that’s scared of an animal have some peace and pleasure out of the simple simplicity of a relationship, ya know, standing beside something and not have a fear but the job of knowing, ya know, ‘This animal is so simple, I love him,’” Gallagher said. “That’ll make your day. These things are very spiritual. I hate to say it like that but they bring the best out of most people.”
Gallagher said he carries five hard-shelled friends with him on the road. Officially called Sulcata tortoises, Gallagher said, the animals are often purchased in some pet stores at only a few inches long.
But they continue to grow each year and have enormous lifespans.
Many of the tortoises Gallagher keeps were prior pets, he said.
The former construction worker said he decided about two years ago to quit his stressful career and go down a new path.
After all, tortoises had always appealed to him, he said.
“I said, ‘Gee, this ain’t fun,’” Gallagher said. “I wanted to do something I enjoyed. So I tried this.”
He supports his traveling — which includes sleeping in his truck in various retail outlet parking lots — and the conservation through donations.
“It don’t really matter if I don’t make a dollar,” he said. “I’m Christian and I’m well taken care of. I don’t spend money frivolously. I’m real simple.”
Instead, Gallagher said, he focuses on his “outreach for children” tortoise touring.
“It gives parents a chance to come and spend time with your children,” he said. “It’ll make your day to stop and see what’s going on.”
For several parents Tuesday, it did.
Waves of local residents stopped to see what was behind the growing group — or the magic behind the oddly shaped moving rock.
Deborah Mason, of Cleveland, said she and her 6-year-old daughter stopped after they noticed the tortoise while stopped at a nearby traffic light.
“It was really interesting,” she said. “I haven’t seen one up close before.”
Mason was one of dozens who let their child ride on the surprisingly agile herbivore’s shell.
Gallagher was quick to point out the safeness and safety rules for curious youth.
“It’s OK,” he told a pack of wide-eyed kids. “You can ride it like a horse.”

Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.