Like most little girls, Jeanna Smith was probably hoping for a puppy.
After all, it was her 10th birthday. The year was 1962, and her father was throwing her a party at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Surely, the day would end with a bouncing bundle of fur-covered joy. Maybe a kitten?
But it turned out, slow and steady won the race to that little girl’s heart.
Her father gave her a tortoise. And 56 years later, they remain inseparable.
"George is probably my oldest friend," Smith told KARE11 News. "He’s just really been a wonderful pet."
It would be hard to imagine it any other way. After all, how many of us get to spend more than half a century with the same pet? While the average dog lives for anywhere from 10 to 13 years, a gopher tortoise sips from the cup of life, many living to see the ripe old age of 80.
Sure, dad could have gotten the little girl a puppy back on 1962, but that would only lead to heartbreak, as any dog owner knows.
Instead, Smith, who is now 65, has only known George the tortoise. And after all those years, these very old friends know each other as well as they do themselves.
"I went off to college and George came with me," Smith recalled to KARE11. "And George lived in my dorm room.
"He's always gotten strawberries and kiwi for Christmas morning," she added. "He'd ride in my bike basket when I was a little girl."
The other side of the tortoise story
For a gopher tortoise, it’s not a bad life. Over the years, the animals have found themselves on increasingly uncertain footing.
Once commonly found in most of the United States, their numbers have dropped precipitously in recent years — with most confined to the state of Florida. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service points to the usual suspects for their decline — habitat destruction, as well as the use of pesticides and herbicides and the absence of strong laws to protect them.
They're considered a "keystone species" because burrows they dig can shelter as many as 300 other animal species.
But things may be getting better for this shell shocked reptile.
Last year, the Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources set aside 3,000 acres for the newly minted Alligator Creek Wildlife Management Area, a sprawling stretch aimed at protecting the gopher tortoise.
But back in 1962, a tiny gopher tortoise found a different kind of protection — the kind you only find in the arms of a little girl.