A man and his tortoise: a story of hope, rescue
Man rescues tortoise. Tortoise repays the favor. Sounds a little like a fairy tale. But this story is anything but a fictitious children's novel. Mike Janssen, who lived in Minneota until he was 12 years old and recently moved back to his hometown after living for over 50 years in California, adopted a desert tortoise from the California Division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 16 years ago.
"The tortoise had an upper respiratory infection, which is common in desert tortoises, and was sick and going to die," said Janssen, 66.
"I filled out all the legal paperwork to adopt him." It is illegal to own a desert tortoise in California unless you have a special permit, which Janssen acquired through the adoption process. Desert tortoises are listed on the Fish and Wildlife Service's "threatened" list, which is one notch below the "endangered species" list.
While Janssen nursed the tortoise (his grandson named him "Dash") back to health, he himself was diagnosed with Stage-4 colon cancer.
"I was told that I had three to six months to live and I told them that was unacceptable," said Janssen, before pumping his fist in the air and declaring "that was 11 years ago.’ It was with God's help, of course."
When he first was battling cancer, Janssen would lay on his couch with very little energy. "I would always go on walks with Dash," Janssen said. "And while I laid on the couch, he would walk over to me and stretch out his head and lay it on the couch by me as if to tell me he to get up and go for a walk.
That really inspired me to go on." Janssen insists that he would not be around today if not for Dash. A real rescue-rescue story. "I really love 'Budders' (a nickname he calls him from the derivation of 'Bud' or 'Buddy'). He is my best friend and I know for a fact that I helped save his life and he helped saved mine."
After Janssen was born in Marshall in 1953, his parents moved to Minneota where he attended St. Edward's School. In 1966, Janssen's father got a job in California and "my parents drug me along", Mike told. His parents eventually returned to Minnesota and resided in Lake Benton, but Mike stayed in California and lived in Calimesa, a city in southern California. That is where Janssen eventually obtained Dash, a 32-year-old male.
"I've always loved animals," he said. "And it just breaks my heart when I see a deer or any animal (dead) on the side of the road. So that's why I wanted to adopt Dash and rescue him."
Janssen was educated on the factors involved in adopting a tortoise, including habitat, feeding, health and more. Tortoises can live up to 80 years of age or more. A healthy tortoise has a voracious appetite, which Dash certainly shows.
Janssen, who is single, fixes him a large plate of fresh watermelon, broccoli and kale that would be enough to satisfy a human's hunger. Dash eagerly consumes a plate that size twice a day.
Tortoises (Janssen doesn't like Dash being referred to as a turtle) have no teeth, but they utilize the tough and pointed edges of their mouth that function quite well for biting purposes. Dash roams Janssen's house as if he owns the place, constantly moving from room to room with much more rapidity than most people would realize.
Tortoises have an excellent sense of smell. Their depth perception is not as good as ours, but they can see a broader range of colors than we can. Most tortoises have dark brown or black eyes. Dash has emerald green eyes, which is rare for a desert tortoise, although not uncommon. Tortoises can't hear frequencies as high as we can.
However, it is known that they can hear some low frequencies, and are good at detecting vibration through their shell. As Dash made his way from the kitchen into the living area, Janssen called his name a couple of times and the tortoise turned from the direction he was headed and walked over to where Janssen was seated.
"They're not supposed to be able to hear well at all, but Dash listens well," Janssen said proudly. And Dash sometimes sleeps in bed with Janssen. "He's not too spoiled," Janssen says sarcastically. Janssen and Dash often take walks together around their large back yard on East Lyon Street.
"It's good for both of us to walk," said Janssen. "We just look out for one another like best buds." Dash is around 16 inches in length and won't get any bigger.
He is easily recognized as a male with his concave plastron (bottom shell), whereas a female's plastron remains flat. Males tortoises also have a longer tail and longer gular horns (an extension of the lower shell used for self-defense) than females.
Janssen, who doesn't drive anymore due to health reasons, is often seen walking around the business district of Minneota. "I like to shop locally," he said. "I go to the thrift store or to Brad's to get some food for me or Dash. I like to get out and talk to people."
Although some days Janssen may not be feeling up to par because of chemotherapy or neuropathy pain, you won't hear him complain. "Every day is great," he insists.
"If someone tells me to have a good day, I tell them it will be a great day. That's just the way I look at things." Janssen is easily recognizable in this small town because of his long white ZZ Top-type beard.
"My best friend went over to Vietnam in 1971 for his third tour of duty and before he left, he made me promise to not shave my beard off until he came back."
Unfortunately, Janssen's friend never made it back as he was killed in action. "I won't shave it off now," said Janssen. "I made a promise."