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August 3, 2011

It only takes a moment

A fence that can withstand the force of a large sulcata who wants on the other side is very important.  Postponing the installation of such a fence can prove to be heartbreaking, I can attest to this. Before we installed a suitable fence, Frankie disappeared from his yard.

Without close supervision Frankie had already made a few "mini-escapes" into our neighborhood.  As soon as he was missed the Frankie Neighborhood Alert would go out to everyone.  All available neighbors would check their yards for the fugitive Frankie.  One time he was found a couple of houses over under a swing and the next time he was found napping in a friends garage.

Luckily, Frankie was found quickly. Alert neighbors and quick timing saved the day

Still, the warnings were disregarded.

On this fateful day, Frankie was allowed outside his small temporary fence to graze.  Frankie completely occupied himself with munching a huge amount of grass so it seemed safe to kick back on the patio and watch him graze.

The phone rang.  Drats. I should have brought the phone outside with me.  What a dumb-dumb.  I run inside to answer it.  A few moments speaking to a friend seems brief.  Before I know it, 15 to 20 minutes have ticked away.

It hits me like ice water - dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.  Hang up phone, run outside and look around with great hope that Frankie is grazing were I left him.

He isn't.  Frankie isn't anywhere in sight.  My stomach tightens. I have a gut feeling.  Groan.

School is in session and adults are at work.  A Frankie Neighborhood Alert is useless. This search is up to me. The area is big:  my yard, all the neighbor's yard, up the street, down the street, the apartments behind our house and a undeveloped wooded area.  Time starts ticking. I have 30 minutes to find him.

Starting in Frankie's yard, I look under every bush and tree.  No luck.  I check the front yard, then the neighbor's house.  I head down the street searching each yard, under every bush and every open area.  No luck.  No sign of Frankie.

How much time has passed?

I search the apartments behind my house.  Nothing. Next is the dreaded undeveloped area next to the apartments.  It's not far from my house so he could have got in there.  Bad news:  it is thick with trees, bushes and vines.  I look but there is no sign of Frankie. 

It's been more than an hour and I can feel my heart hollowing out and stomach filling with acid.  I have to think.  It takes Frankie 45 minutes to walk a mile.  After an hour the chance of finding Frankie diminishes.  In desperation, I revisit every square inch of my backyard.  Again I check the whole neighborhood.  Once more I search the apartments behind the house.   

My stomach is not feeling any better.  I am near panic.  It's now been two hours since Frankie vanished.  As time passes the search area grows bigger and Frankie's risks are greater. The chances of finding him plummets by the moment.  It's getting late in the afternoon and the sun goes down after 6:00 p.m.   Despite my feelings of total desperation, I gather my wits to think what to do.  

Frankie is at the mercy of anyone he comes into contact.  It's important to spread the information that Frankie is a pet, that he has a home and we want him back.  Returning home, I get on the computer and create a LOST poster complete with Frankie picture and REWARD in large letters.

I make 30 copies, grab tape and a stapler. I head out into the neighborhood and hang them on posts, signs and wherever I can without making people mad. I go house to house leaving lost posters through out the neighborhood. 
Phone and address removed

Frankie Lost posters are staple along the fence in the apartments and taped to every dumpster. I Wish I could put one on every door.

When Greg gets home there is no dinner.  He is on his own.  Once more I go through the neighborhood looking under every bush, through every empty lot, under every car, around every house for the one chance Frankie was overlooked the previous two times

People are home from work so the Frankie Neighborhood Alert is raised and neighbors join the search.  Kids are highly motivated when they hear about the Frankie Reward that goes to the first to find him. Greg stays at home to monitors the phone.

As the sunsets, searchers start giving up one by one.  I am the last to surrender.

The only good thought I can come up with is that Frankie may find a safe place to stay the night.  A not-so-good thought is that night temperatures are going to be in the 60s, a bit cool for him.  I feel overwhelmingly guilty for my irresponsibility.

My evening is dedicated to thinking of everything possible action to take.  I must be one step ahead of the search.  I must stay determined.  I have to have Frankie back.  If I don't get Frankie back, I think my heart will break into pieces, slowly, everyday.   

"If someone found a large tortoise, what would they do and who would they call? .......Bingo!

A Lost Frankie poster is fax or an e-mail is sent to every veterinarian within a 25 mile radius.  The local humane society gets a fax and an e-mail.  Every pet store within 50 miles gets a fax or an e-mail.

Then phone calls begin:  I speak to the dispatcher at the local police department. She thinks I am nuts but takes all the information.  I call area firemen (they think I am nuts) but yes, they sometimes get calls about strange animals that people find.  I send out more faxes and more e-mails to anyone who may come across a large tortoise.

That night, sleep is difficult.  It's near impossible to stop my worrying mind.  Again and again, I experience the day's events.  What else should I have done?  Can I get over loosing him?  My heart is breaking.   Not knowing if he is okay is killing me.  Thinking that he may end up somewhere terrible hurts.  What if he is injured or got run over?  Why did I leave him alone for just those few moments?  How could I do that?  It's difficult to think there will be a good outcome. 

If Frankie is nearby there is one chance to find him when he gets up to bask. At first light, it all begins again.  Up and dressed, holding a handful of lost posters, I am outside looking for Frankie before neighbors leave for work.  More posters are distributed.  For the 10th time I check under every bush.  Once the sun is full up, I check open areas for a Frankie warming up in the sun.

By 11:00 a.m. it's time to return home.  What else can be done?  I go over finances.  How much money would I be willing to give to have Frankie back?  $50? $100? $500. Is there enough money in the bank to cover what I would give to have him back?  Could I offer babysitting?  House cleaning?  Bargaining may be required.  I am willing. 

Frankie is at the mercy of other people and I am scared.  If Frankie is on the road, someone may just decide it's fun to run over a large turtle.  Another person may just take him home for a pet never thinking he is someone's pet.  Maybe they would sell Frankie.  I cringe. Someone may use him for target practice.  For the first time, I cry.

I am a horrible, horrible owner.  That fence should be built by now. Stupid, stupid, stupid.  How could I have forgotten him for a moment?  My stomach has shrunk to pea size and my heart no longer works right. I'm sobbing but need to pull myself together so I can keep thinking.  I feel like I should take a hammer to my finger or something.  I am miserable.  Miserable.  Miserable.  Sad. Sad. Even sadder.

The phone rings.  The number isn't familiar.  "Hello?"  It's 2:00 p.m.

"Are you missing a turtle?" says a man.  My whole body turns into goose bumps. 

Yes, yes! YES, Oh, holy SHELLS and saints and sand castles! YES! YES! YES!

Calmly, I say, "Yes. I'm missing my tortoise."

"I think I saw him yesterday at the apartments."  More goose bumps. I ask, "Do you know where he is now?"

"Well" replies the guy, "Yesterday, I was leaving my apartment when I saw this turtle walking between some cars.  He was really big.  I figured he was just a wild turtle from the woods. I thought about taking him home and cooking him but he was so big I figured it would be too much of a mess so I took him to a really nice pond. I left him there."

What?  A pond?  Oh, my stars?  How far away is this place?   .....wait, wait, wait, did he say cook Frankie?

I disregard the food reference.  I am feeling too grateful.  This is my only lead, and even if he thought about Frankie as dinner, this guy offers hope. He is my good Samaritan.  My knight to the rescue.  Nope, I don't know this guy from hay but I am all ears.

The thought that I may find Frankie trumps the idea that this guy could be a serial killer.  I don't care.  I drive over to his apartment. He looks like an average guy. Most serial killers look like average guys.  I throw all caution to the wind.  The guy, John, gets into my vehicle.  The only single precaution I take is to call Greg on my cell phone and let him know the plan while the Good Samaritan potential-serial-killer hears the conversation.  I risk all to get Frankie back.

We drive out of the the apartments.  We drive out of the city.  We drive down a state highway.  Oh, my goodness.  Exactly how far is this?  We turn on a small country road.  This is far, far away from home.  We drive a bit more. I would never have found Frankie. This is more than 10 miles from home.  We drive into a wooded area.  I spot an old house surrounded by junk-to-one-person-is-treasure-to-another acreage of stuff.  There is a small pond on the property.  I am humming the theme song to Deliverance. 

A man who can be described as I've-lived-my-entire-life-on-this-land waves us over.  He is wearing overalls, no shirt and carrying a beer.  It is past noon so I am guessing a beer isn't all that inappropriate. 

My new best friend John waves at his friend and then walks me down to the pond's edge.  I ask John if he put Frankie into the pond.  My heart thumps loudly.

"Well," he says, "I brought it here cause I figured it being a water turtle he would be right at home. But when he got near the water he just went nuts flapping his arms and punching me with his legs.  I had to set him on the ground next to the pond.  Figured he was just not familiar with the area. So then I though I'd push him in.  Do you know what he did?  Well, he started back peddling like he was being pushed into a burning house.  I gave up.  Just left him there by the pond and went back home. I didn't know he was someone's pet until I saw the poster on the dumpster.  So I called.."

I can clearly imagine Frankie looking at the murky water and frantically backing up with his front feet, desperate to stay out of the water.   For the first time in 24 hours, I smile.  Frankie won that fight.

Good Samaritan John heads up to his friends house for a beer while I start walking the area looking for Frankie.  It's a big area so I call for the reserve troops.  I phone Greg and tell him exactly where I am. He's leaving work early to help.

This search area is about two acres of bushes, weeds, and grass up to my butt.  It's a bit muddy around the pond.  I look for foot prints.  None.  It did rain a little last night.  I look for grass that has been pressed down.  Nothing easy for me to follow.

2 o'clock turns to 3 o'clock and I am not finding Frankie.  Greg arrives with a friend. We divide the area and start looking again. I must find Frankie today. I can't image leaving here without him.

It gets past four o'clock and I am loosing hope.  I start searching the yard full of, I mean collect of treasures.

And there, sticking partially out from under an old golf cart, I see the butt end of a treasure:  a very large shell.  No mistaken, it's Frankie.  My heart fills warm, I start to cry. I wave my hands and yell to everyone, "I found him, I found him, I found him!!!!"  I's so happy I could dance.

Frankie will not come out from underneath the cart.  He digs in his feet refusing to move. Maybe he is afraid someone will throw him in the pond.  I sit on the muddy ground and pull at Frankie with every ounce of strength I have.  Greg show up to help.

When he is pulled out Frankie's looks terrified.  This is one very unhappy, cold and miserable tortoise.  Then he sees me.  I swear to you, when he looked at me it seemed as if he was saying, "It's about time! I've had the most horrible time. Please take me home!"  

The sense of relief is overwhelming.  My whole body is filled with love and I want to hug Frankie and not let him go.  Greg lifts Frankie and walks him to the vehicle.  If Frankie's legs were longer he would have clung onto Greg and not let go.

Good Samaritan John, Frankie and I get into my vehicle.  I am muddy and dirty and spreading it all over the car seat and I don't care.  Frankie would be in my lap if I could hold him and drive. 

I take John back to his apartment and give him the reward.  My friend has money enough to buy beer and chips for several weeks.  I wish I could do more for him.  I am ready to invite John to move into our house.  I love this man even if he wanted to cook Frankie.  He will forever be Frankie's hero. 

Frankie and I go home.  I wash down the muddy dirty Frankie.  He is obedient, patient and allows me to clean him thoroughly.

I bring him inside into the kitchen, set him on the floor and start to prepare him a welcome home snack.  Frankie never leaves my side.  This attention is not about food. He wants me to stay close to him.  He walks so close to me that I keep tripping over him.  This tortoise is very happy to be home.

As Frankie digs into his carrots and spring greens I walk toward the computer and notify 100 people that we found Frankie.  Frankie is not pleased that I am leaving so he abandons his food to walk after me.  I decide to stay with Frankie while he has his snack.  I sit on the kitchen floor.

When he finishes his food, he walks over to me.  He forces his way under my knees and my legs hang over his shell.  He is happy just to sit there.  So am I.

For a couple of days Frankie acts like he is tethered to the house.  He is not leaving his home for anything! 

But soon he forgets.  He returns to the same fence crashing, furniture moving, and walking fool I know and love.  Funds for a permanent privacy fence are found fast so Frankie can wander his huge yard at will. 

That fence is probably the best thing I ever gave Frankie. That fence means freedom.  Frankie can walk and walk and walk.  He can graze and graze and graze.  For a sulcata, a good fence means safety in an unsure world.


  1. For just those occasions when I let Galileo go out into a field of high grasses to graze in the spring, I fashioned a flag to attach to Gali's back made of stiff wire and shiny material, it waves as he walks and lets me know exactly where he is. I chuckle as I watch him move from one tender patch to another believing I've done the best I could to keep my boy safe in the "wild"

  2. I would have been going crazy too.. I love my sulcata "sully" like she is one of my kids.. she will even climb in my lap when i go out and sit in her pen. they do get attached to there owners. and we SO get attached to them. i would so put in a doggie door, and just let her come in the house when ever she wanted,, but she allways trys to snack on our carpet..

  3. Pong's FarmerOctober 20, 2011

    a very epic story and lesson Leann. i remember how i felt when PonG went for a walk on his own..i dont want to feel that way again!
    Thanks for a very revealing larger=than-life roller coaster lection glad it had the good ending for sure. Dang!!