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Alberta tortoise keeper stockpiling weeds for winter feeding: 'They're like pigs'

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Tracy Finnegan wishes she had more weeds in her yard. 

Creeping bellflower, oxeye daisy, plantain, chickweed – all are full of the nutrients her four tortoises (escape artist Fred, socialites Velma and Daphne, and her first, Kokanee) require. 

"Part of the problem is I have weeds like this," Finnegan told CTV News Edmonton in a recent interview, pointing to a different plant along the group's enclosure, "which are not tortoise safe. I have tons of whatever this is and they can't eat it."

She noted, "Surprisingly, a lot of research goes into what they can and can't eat."

The tortoises are a relatively new addition to Finnegan Farms near Redwater, which is also home to the Alberta Petting Zoo. The zoo, run largely by Finnegan's daughters, travels across the province for events like KDays. 

"Years ago, I lived in the city and one of my kids wanted a horse. You know, when they're little and you say, 'Yeah, yeah, when you're 12 you can have a horse,'" Finnegan recalled. "Doggone, that girl got a paper route and I didn't realize she was saving this paper route money for the horse I said she could get when she was 12."

As her five children grew up, and more got horses, the family started the petting zoo to afford hay for the winter, moving to an 80-acre homestead and adding bunnies, a pair of ostriches, chickens, turkeys, donkeys, miniature cattle, ponies, sheep and goats.

Then, about two years ago, tortoises. 

"It allows me to stay home as well," Finnegan, who is also a foster parent, said. "And it's great for the kids because they're out on a place where they can be with animals. You know, animals (are) therapy, right?"

Tracy Finnegan speaks to CTV News Edmonton on July 8, 2024, on her farm near Redwater, Alta. (Sean McClune / CTV News Edmonton)

During the summer, Fred, Daphne, Velma and Kokanee spend their days outside, munching on the grass and leaves already there, plus a daily "turtle salad" prepared by Finnegan. 

For night, their keeper shepherds them inside. They can't stay in environments cooler than 19 C. 

Kokanee, a cherry-head red-footed tortoise, can't eat as much protein or sugar as his roommates, who eat greens, vegetables, fruit, and proteins like mealworms, boiled chicken, shrimp and eggs. 

Pricey as their diet is in the summer, it becomes more expensive in the winter when Finnegan has to buy lettuce to supplement the weeds she dries in advance. 

"It doesn't actually have much nutrition that these guys particularly need, so I will substitute with lettuce, maybe mix it – part weeds and part lettuce – to stretch us through," she said. 

She has already started storing dried weeds for the colder months. But, after underestimating how much she would need last year, Finnegan has asked anyone who knows they have tortoise-safe weeds that have not been exposed to chemicals of any kind to contact her

So many people have reached out, the tortoise keeper has struggled to keep up. 

"It has been amazing and a nightmare at the same time trying to make sure I don't miss anybody," she told CTV News Edmonton. 

But, she wants to err on the side of caution. 

"I would rather have too much than not enough." 

Of the tortoises' appetite, she said, "They're like pigs. They just eat constantly if they can." 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Matt Woodman and Sean McClune