Perspective

Experience: I own the world’s fastest tortoise

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‘When Bertie gets going, there’s no stopping him – he charges off like a big clockwork toy’

Bertie was given to my husband Marco and me by a couple who were leaving the country and couldn’t take him with them. He’s an attractive creature, a leopard tortoise with a light shell covered in dark spots. Soon after we got him, I spotted a female of the same species advertised in the local paper. We snapped her up – Shelly joined Bertie, and we hoped we’d have some baby tortoises to look forward to.

Marco and I opened our children’s park, Adventure Valley, five years ago. We now have 200 animals, but Bertie has become our most famous.

I don’t remember if it was an animal team member or a visitor who first commented on Bertie’s speed, but once it had been mentioned, it started coming up all the time. When Bertie gets going, there’s no stopping him – he charges off like a big clockwork toy. We once put down a bowl of his favourite food, strawberries, to tempt him in a certain direction and he charged straight over the top of it and kept going. Neither Marco nor I had ever owned a tortoise before, so we didn’t have anything to compare him with, though he certainly moved a lot faster than Shelly.

We did some research and started conducting our own trials. A visit to the Guinness World Records website told us that the fastest recognised tortoise was Charlie, who had covered 18 feet in 43.7 seconds at the National Tortoise Championships at Tickhill, South Yorkshire, in 1977. We measured Bertie’s speed over the same distance and, to our astonishment, he beat Charlie’s record comfortably. Thinking we had made a mistake, we turned him round and timed him again, with the same result. There was only one thing for it: we were going to have to take this to a higher authority.

The criteria we received back from Guinness were quite specific and very strict. We had to recreate the conditions of the previous record exactly, building an 18ft track with a one-in-12 gradient, so Bertie would be racing slightly uphill, just as Charlie had. We needed an architect there to ensure the gradient was exactly right and two official timekeepers, loaned by our local football club, Sunderland. There was a vet present, too, to ensure Bertie was all right, and all these witnesses had to give statements.

The morning of the attempt was pretty nerve-racking. We didn’t know what sort of mood Bertie would be in. He seemed unfazed, though, as we brought him into the room where the experts were waiting. It was dominated by the track, a self-contained trough with a chequered finishing line at the top. Bertie performed well on a couple of trial runs, so we decided to go for it.

As he was placed on the starting line, Bertie’s legs were already sweeping the air. He pounded up the track, clawed feet stomping as the onlookers egged him on: “Come on, Bertie! Come on, son! Final stretch, lad!” There were cheers as he crossed the finishing line and, true to form, kept going.

Bertie hadn’t just beaten the record, he’d smashed it. His time was 21.47 seconds – half Charlie’s time. Given that he was still raring to go, we let him run again and he shaved almost another two seconds off his own record: 19.59 seconds, faster than we’d ever measured him.

We were overjoyed, but we didn’t tell anyone, other than close friends and family. We had to wait for the next Guinness book of records to be announced. Soon after the record was measured, a representative from Guinness visited to hand over the certificate. As Marco held him up for the photographers, Bertie responded by urinating on his feet. I don’t know if it was the excitement – tortoise emotions can be hard to read.

No one has yet offered an explanation as to why Bertie is so fast (perhaps he’s just a fluke of nature) or tried to challenge his record. He’s only 10, so he could go on defending it for decades. Meanwhile, we’ve tripled the size of Bertie and Shelly’s house, so he has more room to exercise, and Shelly’s just laid a couple of eggs. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for some mini-Berties soon, and hoping they’ll inherit the Usain Bolt factor. theguardian