This is a famous photo among people who work with desert tortoises. It says much, not only about the character of desert tortoises but about their relationship with modern humanity. I never met this tortoise but I wish I had.
Let’s take this picture apart and learn what we can. The tortoise is a female: she has a flat plastron (the underside of her shell that is showing); a short tail, long rear claws, and a short, straight “gular horn” (the projection beneath her chin). Her well worn scutes (the plates that make up the shell) are nearly lacking growth rings. It takes many years of crawling in and out of burrows to wear those rings off. She has lived a long life as a free, wild animal. Now she is confined to a tiny pen, provided with an artificial burrow to shelter from the elements. She has probably paced the fence line repeatedly, searching for an escape and decided there is only one way out.
Her position is not an accident. It is, I think, the product of a deep desire for freedom on the part of a resourceful and tenacious animal. Think about what she has done to get where she is. First, she has hoisted herself from the horizontal plane and, probably for the first time in her decades long life, achieved a vertical stance. Hooking her claws onto the hogwire fencing she has climbed more than a body length off the ground. To understand, go find a 12′ high fence and, using your fancy grippy little fingers and toes, climb on up to the top. Then do it with a 50 lb. pack on your back to simulate her weight distribution. She has somehow figured out how to advance up this surface in a highly coordinated fashion all the time avoiding losing her tenuous grip and tumbling backwards. It took many small moves to climb that high.
Why? She wants to get out of that cramped pen. She wants to go home. She is willing to try something utterly foreign to do so. This is the act of a brave heart.
Why is she in the pen, one of many at the site? She is a “translocatee”, held here before being transferred to some other piece of habitat. Some people somewhere for some reason have decided that the land that has been her home for the last half century or so should be used a different way. Given her druthers she would certainly return home but that is now out of the question. So she will soon be exploring a new piece of land, learning where rainwater pools and the best food grows, digging herself some new burrows, meeting unknown tortoises.
It will not be an easy time but I think this particular tortoise will do alright.