The Pet Problem 2021: Reptile Model

Photos: Eric England

When we meet Watson, he is walking – slowly, purposefully – through the large garden of Kirk and Libby George in Hendersonville. Its strong and spurred front legs flank the leathery neck and the stern face, which protrude from its molded shell. He pauses to pull some grass off the ground and chew on it – slowly, purposefully. The reporter kneeling to look at him or the photographer lying on the grass to take a picture of him does not seem to bother him or be remotely interested. Maybe he knows he’ll likely outlive us all.

Watson is a sulcata turtle, also known as the African spurred turtle. He is now around 9 years old and could be 100 years old. If you are reading this, it could outlast you and possibly your children as well. This is in large part because of how well he is cared for while he lives with the Georges.

Kirk and Libby George with Freja, the Brazilian boa and Watson, the African spurred turtlePhotos: Eric EnglandKirk is a tattoo artist and co-owner of Island Tattoo downtown (where he tattooed me last year, full disclosure). Libby is a hairdresser at Local Honey. The two first met in Alabama about 10 years ago when Kirk had them tattooed over the course of a year or so. Back then he only had a few reptiles. Among them: a king snake that he has had since he was 18, a Tegu lizard named Hercules and a bearded dragon named Apollo, who has since passed away. Eventually the couple married and settled in Nashville. Libby, who grew up with more traditional pets, was warm to Kirk’s lifelong love of reptiles, and her suburban menagerie grew.

Watson is just one of the couple’s 23 pets, a breed that also includes three snakes, 17 lizards, and two dogs. Watson shares most of the back yard – which includes a fully insulated and heated shelter that Kirk built, as well as a small pond – with two Tegu lizards (the aforementioned Hercules along with Rex) and the two pups (boxer mix Phaedra and Pitbull Ares). The Georges adopted Watson a little over a year ago from a turtle rescue. At first they thought they would give him the whole yard, including a paved section with a driveway with a gate. But then Libby made a good point – although turtles like Watson can sleep on a dollar bill when they were born, they can ultimately weigh over 200 pounds. At some point, one morning, when Kirk or Libby went out to the car to drive to work, Watson might park right outside the gate and they’d have a tough ordeal. They built a small wooden partition to hold him in the grass.

Now you are wondering: what does the inside of a house that is shared with 21 reptiles and two dogs look like? Remarkably nice in the case of Georges. A little eccentric, yes, but less than you might think. There are a few collage walls of artwork that could be conversation pieces on their own, a row of plants, and in a two-car garage that the couple converted into a finished room, a large collection of Star Wars characters, and more than one Dozen reptiles in enclosures. This includes a couple of leopard geckos, four bearded dragons, two Aki monitors, a beautiful Brazilian rainbow boa named Freja, the aforementioned king snake (the first reptile Kirk ever owned), and five Great Mastyx lizards (one of which is called Baby Yoda). You look at all of this and the tattoos that cover your arms and you start to pick up on a pattern.

“We are collectors,” confirms Libby.

Kirk and Libby GeorgeKirk and Libby GeorgePhotos: Eric EnglandBut really, to look at their reptiles as just one more collection would mean missing out on the obvious care they have for the animals and their attention to the way snakes and lizards fit into their homes. Kirk built large wooden shelves for the enclosures that line the walls of the former garage. One of his snakes, a jumbo carpet python that they have owned for about three years, lives in an antique porcelain cabinet that Kirk converted into an enclosure.

“I’m at the point now where I just think, ‘If I have these animals, I’ll get it right or I’ll not have them at all,'” says Kirk. “What, that should be the approach to so many things.”

Libby GeorgeLibby GeorgePhotos: Eric EnglandLibby says that if Ludo the chameleon dies, she probably won’t want another one. She clearly loves him – he has a tattoo on her arm – but chameleons are fragile, and she often worried early on whether she would do everything in her power to take good care of him. (For what it’s worth, it seems great.) The Georges acquired most of their animals by adopting them or buying them from breeders, an option that ensures they are not part of the plucking of exotic animals of the wild. It is a lot of work to take care of the pile. They spend their mornings checking lightbulbs, and Kirk’s iPhone calendar contains the feeding schedule for the various creatures. Standing in her kitchen, Libby reaches over and opens the freezer to pick up the fruits, vegetables, and meat that she’s divided into separate servings for the larger lizards outside. She opens a drawer and takes out a bag of frozen mice.

“My fridge is full of delicious things,” she says. Their plan is to create a backyard garden so that they can grow more of their own animal feed.

As interesting as the lizards and snakes are, the conversation eventually comes back to Watson. All pets require a little more attention than a cat, for example. But Watson comes with a particularly serious commitment. For one thing, they had to talk about where he could go if they die – maybe a zoo or a turtle sanctuary, maybe a family with children. Then there are the logistical challenges.

“Going to the vet is not an easy task,” says Kirk. “With it you are always the center of attention when you take it with you wherever you go.”

But sometimes that’s a nice thing. Recently, Kirk decided to let Watson go around the house and into the front yard. He called over the fence to his neighbors to tell them. Soon an elderly couple was coming out across the street to see the tall guy and another couple out walking stopped to enjoy their slow, purposeful stroll.

“I felt like I had the neighborhood united,” says Kirk, still excited about Watson’s unique power. “I just thought, ‘This is crazy, I feel like I’m having a block party because of my turtle!’ ”