Pearl is not a cuddler.
She's more like the quirky, misunderstood heroine of an art-house film with a tough outer shell and a mushy center with a heart of gold.
To be specific, she's a spurred African sulcata tortoise we picked up (quite literally) half a world away from her native Saharan motherland — in a leafy suburban neighborhood just south of Los Angeles.
Sunning herself in an alley a few blocks from our house, Pearl probably wouldn't have described herself as lost, but she was.
In fact, her "rescue" is probably a matter of opinion.
After knocking on doors, posting "found" notices on social media and checking the local reptile store for report of a runaway tortoise, we found ourselves with the responsibility of caring for this mysterious creature.
In some ways we were well prepared: Parenting teens has honed our ability to interpret silent glances, meaningful stares and eye rolls. But we were pretty sure Mexican food and pizza were not the order of the day.
Between Google, the guy at the reptile store (a sulcata guardian himself) and the informative American Tortoise Rescue website, our understanding of tortoise culture began to grow.
This was no ordinary pet.
Pet store sales of sulcatas are controversial because the tortoises are about the size of a silver dollar when they are young and shoppers may not be aware of what they are signing up for — resulting in poor care, mistreatment or abandonment. (In fact, the American Tortoise Rescue is calling for a moratorium on Sulcata sales because full-grown, unwanted tortoises are swamping rescues and zoos cannot take them all.)
Cute as she was with her beady eyes, beaked mouth, spikey hind quarters and scaly, elephantine legs, Pearl was a commitment with a capital C.
Sulcata tortoises can live up to 100 years and weigh between 70 and 200 pounds.
The shape of the shell (or carapace) on her underbelly told us she was a girl (probably), and our new best friend at the reptile place estimated she was about 1 ½ years old.
Learning her secrets has been fascinating.
Sulcatas are attracted to bright, pretty colors and they love flowers — especially eating them.
Pearl prefers pink roses, hibiscus and dandelions but mainly eats grass, the occasional cabbage leaf and strawberries as a rare treat.
Not so charming: She would feast on her own poop and our dog Daisy's too if we let her. Which we don't for health reasons.
Tortoises need a quiet corner to call their own (cough *teens* cough), so if they are not given a covered hidey-hut they will burrow deep holes into the earth with their strong, spiked forearms.
On hot days we turn on a small sprinkler inside her backyard pen and watch her frolic.
On other days, pondering her movements is like a meditation. You can feel yourself relax.
With Pearl, it's about life in the slow lane.
And a different kind of joy compared with when our golden doodle tackles us with love and wild abandon at the front door. Maybe caretakers of birds, fish and things that crawl, slither and run on a wheel feel the same way?
It may not be furry and aggressively friendly, but it's love all the same.
And like the fabled race against the hare, love and the tortoise always come through in the end.