Master Miyagi Oogway and Gloria Li. Photo by Yujie Zhou.

“I guess he’s like my great-grandfather,” said 23-year-old Gloria Li, pointing to her plum-sized tortoise, who is about three years old. “Look how old he is. He’s really slow. He has wrinkles. He was born like an old man.”

Tortoises are not the most common choice of pet. A list published in August, 2020, ranked reptiles, which includes tortoises, the fourth among all the animals owned as pets in the U.S. And the list recorded 136 times as many households with dogs as there were reptiles, not to mention tortoises. Put simply, “It’s rare to see people walking their tortoise,” said Li.

In May, Li moved to the Mission with her boyfriend. After spending a few weeks researching the lives of tortoises in BBC documentaries, and on zoo websites and Reddit, on Nov. 3 she met the little creature in a pet shop in downtown San Francisco. “All the other tortoises were sleeping. But he was the only one awake. There was a big pile of leaves, he sat on top of it and ate like crazy,” she said.

Li took the baby glutton back to her home, close to Valencia Street, and named him Master Miyagi Oogway, after two cinematic martial arts grandmasters: Master Oogway from “Kung Fu Panda” and Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid” series. Li seemed to think the answer was obvious when she asked, “Doesn’t he look similar?” 

The aforementioned little tan creature was helping himself to the green leaves on the table, with a nail-sized leaf on his head that Li had just put on to amuse him. Apparently he was still unaware of the high hopes she placed on him. 

“He doesn’t make any noise. This is the loudest he gets, if you hear him eating the little leaves.” We paused for a few seconds, holding our breath to catch the little guy’s voice. I didn’t hear anything.

Master Miyagi Oogway. Photo by Yujie Zhou.

Master Miyagi Oogway likes anything that looks green, which even includes Li’s nails. “I did my nails, and he tried to eat it. Because he’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a leaf,’” said Li. “So, next time I paint my nails, I’ll make sure they’re not green.” 

Master Miyagi Oogway’s gluttony is no secret in the Mission, as Li frequents Evergreen Market for cactus leaves and Bi-Rite Market for bok choy scraps. And Mission people always seem to be willing to spoil Master Miyagi Oogway. Once, a seller at the Valencia Farmers Market gave him several lettuce scraps for free.

Master Miyagi Oogway is generally an outgoing tortoise who likes to interact with people, although he can be shy sometimes. Once, when Li was bathing him, a string of bubbles appeared on the surface of the water. “He farted in the water,” said Li, who interpreted it as an act of modesty.

Despite all the care and attention, sometimes Master Miyagi Oogway can’t help wanting to run away, or he may just want to go outside. More than once, Li witnessed the tortoise hang over the edge of his cardboard box and do pull-ups, sometimes for as long as three hours. 

Master Miyagi Oogway in his new sweater. Photo courtesy of Gloria Li. Taken November, 2021.

One of these failed escape attempts was documented on his personal Instagram account (@masteroogwaythetort). Li, who built and runs the page herself, enjoys writing wise quotes in Oogway’s voice as if he’s “an old, wise Asian grandfather – but minus the alcohol and smoking, just with the idioms.” One standout example goes: “If you only do what you can do, you will never be more than you are now. Baby Miyagi.”

Li’s research tells her that this baby tortoise who eats only leaves every day will someday grow up into a three-foot-long and 200-pound adult. By then, “I will probably get a pretty big yard for Master Oogway,” said Li, who worries how that might affect her rent price in San Francisco.

Then, almost with a sigh of relief, she adds, “But I probably don’t have to worry about it for another 50 years.” However, this huge amount of time reminds her of a bigger worry: “Master Oogway will live to 100 years,” she said. “He will definitely live longer than me.” 

“I’ll have to write him into my will to make sure someone brings him lettuce every day,” she said.

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Yujie Zhou is our newest intern. Before falling in love with the Mission, she covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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13 Comments

  1. Thank you for the story about the pet tortoise. I have kept tortoises myself & find them fascinating. Yes, they go far back in time & I also think of them as ancestors. My last tortoise pet seemed unhappy in his aquarium so I eventually sent him off to the San Diego zoo where the keepers could care for him properly. There was once club in the Bay Area for tortoise & turtle pet keepers so they could meet & exchange notes about their experiences & listen to experts lecture on the finer points of the lives of turtles & tortoises.

    1. I am 61 and have some physical disabilities. I want a Sulcutta tortoise in the worst way. But can’t seem to locate any in Florida. Any ideas or help is appreciated!

      1. Try looking up Camp Kenan on YouTube. This guy may sell baby sulcatta tortoises … I don’t remember for sure. Look below his videos for info like his website : kampkenan.com

  2. Stop, this is so adorable. This writer is so talented, I was cracking up (and looks like they’re an intern, good for them) and hope they write more

  3. Sweet story!

    In “The Amsterdam Cops” by Janwillem van de Wetering, a series of Zen Buddhist parables masquerading as police procedurals, the police chief and secret zen master Commissaris has a pet turtle he considers himself as a master.

  4. And just when I thought the story couldn’t get any better, I scroll down to a picture of Master Miyagi Oogway … wearing… a sweater! Seriously, how cool is that?! Great article. Cheers, Ms. Zhou! (And you too, Master Miyagi.)

  5. I grew up with lots of turtles. I had a box turtle in my twenties. I never would have thought to dress my turtles! How about a swimsuit for water turtles? Lol…

  6. I have a Tortoise named Norm. We got him at Petco. I took him to the Vet and found out he was 34. Lol. He now has a gf named Nancy. Bought her from Petco also. Her appointment is next week. I’m so curious as to how old she is?

  7. I have two beautiful phenomenal amazing ones myself their names are Payge, and Jackson. They both are almost 5 now I could not live my life with out them. They are so fun. They love to eat and play love to be brushed. They love to cuddle and run. Love the outside and laying in the sun. Cant wait for them too meet there full size. Thank you for your story

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