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A 90-year-old tortoise becomes a new dad and a media sensation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A big new attraction at the Houston Zoo is actually all about three tiny tortoise babies. What's unique is their dad is 90 - nine zero - years old. From The Texas Newsroom, Rob Salinas reports.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Roar.

JACKIE WALLACE: Well, yes, the schoolchildren certainly love the lion.

ROB SALINAS, BYLINE: The lions are usually one of the biggest draws at the Houston Zoo. But this week it was the 90-year-old turtle named Mr. Pickles, says Jackie Wallace. She's been fielding media calls for the zoo.

WALLACE: So as I scroll through my emails, I'm seeing requests from Germany, from ABC World News Tonight, news outlets all over the world wanting to talk about the Pickles family.

SALINAS: So the Pickles are a hit.

WALLACE: The Pickles are a viral hit. Yes, one could say that safely.

SALINAS: The cause of this sensation is the fact that, for the first time in his 90-year life, Mr. Pickles is a dad. He and Mrs. Pickles, who's a spry 53 by tortoise standards, had their first children together but only because Melissa Hodges, the herpetology keeper, made a discovery.

MELISSA HODGES: I couldn't believe it. I think I was in shock.

SALINAS: That was October 7.

HODGES: It was a night event at the zoo, and I happened to just walk to the tortoise habitat. And I saw her kicking some dirt around, and I saw, like, the small piece of egg. I knew it was her laying eggs. So once she finished, I let her walk away, take her time. And then I dug up the eggs that night.

SALINAS: Had she not seen the eggs, then it's likely the birth of the three Pickle children wouldn't have taken place. That's because the soil in their native Madagascar, where these radiant turtles live, is quite different from the soil in Houston. The eggs were moved to the reptile and amphibian house, where they received plenty of love and care. It paid off when Dill, Gherkin and Jalapeno hatched. Their birth is important because this turtle is on a list of critically endangered species. Hodges says it's great Mr. Pickles' DNA is passed on.

HODGES: It's unusual because Mr. Pickles - at 90 years old, he is No. 1 in the AZA stud book. So...

SALINAS: Wait. There's a book.

HODGES: It's a stud book that keeps, like, records of their genetics and everything in all AZA zoos and facilities. And the radiated tortoises one - he is No. 1.

SALINAS: The Pickle babies won't be on display for a few years as they grow up a bit. But Mr. Pickles, the zoo's new stud, is just a short walk from the lions. For NPR News, I'm Rob Salinas in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Salinas