Make sure not to sit on the reading pillows in Kelly Keefe’s first grade classroom. Visitors might be shell-shocked to learn there could be a turtle under there.

Tugi, short for Tortuga — Spanish for turtle — is often found nestled in the pillows, napping away.

“That’s his spot, and that’s where he goes,” Keefe said. “He’s here all the time.”

The turtle is integral to the Munger Mountain Elementary School community and even has a picture in the yearbook.

“Tugi was a gift from a Munger Mountain family,” Principal Scott Eastman said. “They asked us if we’d like a turtle, and we said yes. He has become a part of our school.”

A couple dozen students come into the front office and say hi to him every morning. In May they were still doing it, even though the newness had worn off.

No one knows Tugi’s gender, but everyone seems to refer to the turtle as a male. No one quite knows his age either, but he is believed to be at least 10 years old. Life expectancy for the most popular pet turtle in the United States is between 20 and 40 years.

In his tank at the front of the school Tugi is curious when visitors come up close. He swims and zooms side to side.

“He’s very active,” Eastman said.

The turtle is about 10 inches long, head to tail, and has beautiful, detailed black markings on his shell. As a red-eared slider Tugi also exhibits quintessential scarlet markings on the sides of his head.

Tugi’s home away from home is Keefe’s classroom. You’ll know he’s present by the “Tugi in the room” Post-it note on the door. Students take ownership of their classroom pet and are responsible for making sure he doesn’t make a break for it when they’re coming and going from the room.

Because Tugi is a semiaquatic turtle he can’t stay in his tank all day and actually prefers to be out of the water.

The school didn’t know that at first. Tugi began the year lethargic. A school nurse, counselor and custodian teamed up to try to determine what was wrong with him. Lamps, lights and a veterinarian visit later, they figured it out.

“It was touch and go for a little bit,” Eastman said. “It’s been a really cool community effort to support this turtle. He’s a celebrity.”

Tugi’s shell-ebrity status is cemented in the classroom, where kids clamor to have him sit in their lap like a puppy or crawl across their legs on his way around the room.

“He got on me five times,” 7-year-old Gael Corona Vazquez said.

His classmate described a time when Tugi climbed into a bookshelf.

“He got on the shelf and the papers went flying,” 7-year-old Henry Allen said.

Teachers normally don’t fall for the cliched “My dog ate my homework” line. But what about destruction caused by a turtle?

“Sometimes he pees on the paper,” 6-year-old Edwin Aguilar reported.

Students will occasionally feed Tugi a cherry tomato, his favorite, or little bits of lettuce.

“When the kids sit on the carpet he crawls over them instead of walking around,” Keefe said. “He’s not afraid. I guess he’s comfortable with them. He knows the kids aren’t going to hurt him.”

Her class was ecstatic to learn Tugi would make it into the News&Guide.

“He’s going to be in the paper?” several children excitedly asked.

Historically, school pet publicity hasn’t always been of the positive variety. In 1995 the Jackson Hole News reported that a 15-foot, 90-pound python owned by the school district bit custodian and animal science program teacher Howard Schwartzman in a “freak accident.” The snake, named Sly, also made it into a school yearbook.

Although Tugi doesn’t wander the halls during school hours, Keefe lets him out to visit neighboring teachers with her supervision once students are gone for the day. During the day he paws at the door not unlike a dog.

Trying to find the inquisitive little critter in the roughly 77,000-square-foot Munger Mountain Elementary School would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

“We’ve seen him run in here,” Keefe said. “He can run.”

She takes Tugi home on the weekends and over school breaks.That’s where he’s learned “there are treasures on the other side of the door.” Over spring break he snoozed for 63 hours in a pillow fort Keefe brought back with her.

She’s never had a turtle before but said she “just loves animals in general.” Tugi watches TV with her and will fall asleep on her shoulder sometimes.

“This might sound a little weird, but he sleeps in the bed,” Keefe said.

There are almost 600 videos and pictures of the turtle — playing with the principal, speeding around the classroom — on her cellphone.

“I love him,” Keefe said. “I can’t help it.” 

Contact Kylie Mohr at 732-7079 or schools@jhnewsandguide.com.

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