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Over the White Board Fence

In for a penny, in for a pound

Michael Hillman

(8/1) When I finally got on the plane, all I could think was: "Heís safe." It had started out as one of the most frustrating days of my live, yet it finished as one on the most fulfilling. The only thing I had left to do was write the events of the past 24 hours down before they became a distant memory.

The dayís events were set into motion about a month ago. I was dropping copies of the paper off at the Cunningham Falls State Parks Scales and Tail's office when John Zuke, one of the part time rangers asked me if I wanted a peek at their latest addition. I have become friends with Johnóthe father of the paperís Pure On Sense columnists, Scott Zukeó over the past few years due to our interaction for the parkís monthly In the Country column in the paper.

Scales and Talesí newest edition was a juvenile screech owl that was attacked the day before by two crows and had fallen into the lake, where to the surprise of everyone, it "swam" to shore. Retrieved by the rangers, it sat quietly in the parkís office waiting to be fed. That night, John put the owl in a tree near where it had been attacked in the hopes that its parents would find and reclaim it. Sadly, that did not happen. The next morning John found the baby owl exactly where he had left it, and once again retrieved and fed it.

While they will never know for sure, based upon the juvenile owlís lack of timidity around humans, the park rangers concluded that someone had hand-raised him from a hatchling but abandoned him in the park when the trouble of feeding him 6 to 7 mice a day exceeded his cuteness. Left all alone, he surely would have died had the rangers not rescued him.

As John showed him to me, we talked about the cost of rehabbing him so he could one day return to the wild. I offered to help cover those expenses, and left John with his new friend and a broad smile on his face.

As it turned out, my offer of finical help was not needed, as the park was able to get the owl to a wildlife center were he was paired up with other orphaned owls and an adult owl who assumed the role of parent to them all. This little guy was going to make it thanks to people who cared.

Now, fast-forward one month...

Once again, I found myself dropping off papers at the Scales and Tail's office, and once again John asked me if I wanted to see their latest addition. This time however, I sensed a note of sorrow in the tone of his voice. Something was wrong.

John walked me into the aviary and over to a large water tub in the bottom of which lay the largest turtle I had ever seen. It was easily a foot and a half long, if not longer.

"Heís an African Spur-Thigh Tortoise" John said. "A man from Frederick said that he had found him a few days ago while doing some excavations in Gaithersburg, and brought him home." John then went on to tell me the sad plight of what happens to most of these creatures.

Bought at pet stores when they are no bigger then a half-dollar, they amuse and entertain childrenĖ for a while, that is. As they mature quickly, much like the juvenile owl, the time and cost of maintaining them soon tire their owners, and many are simply left outside to fend for themselves. Having grown dependant on human support, few survive for long in the wild. As sub-Saharan desert natives, the tortoises that do manage to survive the summer months die from exposure during the long, cold months of winter.

"But this guy got lucky, given his size, itís clear someone loved him." John said. "So I donít think we got the full story on him. Pets like this donít simply wander off. Something happened."

The anguish in Johnís eye was clearly evident.

I wanted to know more about the history of the turtle, so John continued to explainÖ.

"He was taken from the man who found him because they thought he was an endangered Maryland Wood Turtle, which he is not, so he has to go back to the man who found him."

"How did animal control get involved?" I asked.

"Someone called and filed an animal cruelty complaint. Apparently he was keeping the tortoise in a trashcan, which is cruel to begin with, but in this heat it could be a death sentence." answered a clearly dejected John. Something was clearly wrong.

"Canít the state do something?" I asked.

"No," replied John, "as he is not endangered, we canít do anything legally for him here. Animal Control can warn him, but God only knows what will happen once they leave. If heís to survive, someone is going to have to step forward and help the tortoise."

Johnís words played over and over in my head. Who was that someone? Like many in this country, I had become accustomed to a nameless person always stepping forward to be "that someone." I knew from my years of reading that there were countless tortoise sanctuaries. Surely one of them could be contacted to help this tortoise. But John was right,. As a state employee he was restricted in what he could do. As we both stood quietly looking at the tortoise, I realized that my time had come to be that "someone."

"OK," I said, taking a deep breath, "talk to the guy and ask if he is willing to give him up to a tortoise sanctuary. If he is, Iíll pay the cost of getting him there."

Johnís smile returned. ĎIíll do that. Thanks."

The next morning, Saturday, I opened the paper to see a rather negative story regarding the stateís handling and confiscation of the tortoise and of the individual who said he had found him and his ability or qualifications to care for the tortoise. The individual who Ďfoundí him clearly came out looking disreputable. I now understood Johnís unspoken concerns.

As I was recounting with my wife my conversation with John, the phone rang. It was John.

"Are you still willing to cover the expenses of getting the tortoise to a sanctuary?" he asked.

For a split second I hesitated. It would be easy to say no. I had no idea what the cost might be, and I had yet to get to that part of the story with my wife. If I was to renege on my offer, now was the time to do it. But I couldnít. "In for a penny, in for a pound," I thought.

"Sure." I replied, "Tell him Iíll cover the expenses."

I hung up, shaking my head and wondering how I always managed to get myself into these situations. I had set aside a week to play catch-up on a long list of overdue farm projects, I had to get ready for a competition the next day, and on top of all that, I had to fly to South Carolina the next afternoon for work. Now, I needed to find some way to locate a tortoise sanctuary open on Saturday and find a way to get him to them safely. I secretly hoped the guy would reject my offer and opt to obtain the care for the tortoise himself. But just in case, I set out to find an open sanctuary. I finally found one in Lancaster, about a 2hour drive away that would take him.

About an hour later, John called. "The guy has agreed to give you the tortoise." He gave me the manís address and phone number.

Now I really was in for a "pound." There was no going back.

I called and confirmed with the man as best I could that he was indeed willing to surrender the tortoise to a sanctuary. I could barely understand what he was saying. At best I could only understand every fifth word. All I could hope was that he wasunderstanding me. But, when I finally convinced myself that he indeed understood what was going to happen, I told him that I was on my way.

"Iíll be on my porch waiting," he replied.

At 4 pm, a half-hour after my call, I pulled up in front of his house, and as promised, he was sitting on his porch waiting for me. I was directed to take the car around the block and down an alley leading to the back of his house, which I did.

I grabbed my camera, with the intention of getting a photograph of him handing me the tortoise for a story for the paper. But I was unprepared for what I saw next. The yard the tortoise lived in was strewn with empty beer bottles and trash. The tortoise was being handed about as if it was a ball. Bounced around from person to person, and up and down as if it were a baby, the stress on the tortoiseís face was clearly evident. When one person insisted on putting it on their head for a photo, I put my best poker face on. All that was on my mind was Ďthis animal was going to die unless something was done to help him.í

John was right. ĎDonít say anything,í I thought to myself, Ďtake the photo, get the tortoise, and be gone. Deal with what you are seeing later.í

I once again went over the plans for the tortoise, and once again, the man confirmed his agreement. After taking the photographs, I put the camera over my shoulder and picked up the tortoise and began to head to the car. I had barely taken my second step when I suddenly found the tortoise torn from my hands.

"Youíre not taking George!" the man shouted. "First, I want a story in the paper saying Iím a hero for finding him. Once they say Iím a hero, and then you can have him." And without another word, he turned and went into the house with the tortoise.

I stood frozen in my tracks as my mind tried to process what just had happened. A minute or two later, the man came out of his house, clearly agitated, and in a spew of profanity, told me to get out of his sight. So I left.

I called my wife and told her I was coming home empty-handed. It was a long drive home as I ran the events that had just transpired over and over again in my head. What had I done wrong? What could I have done differently? What should I do now?

In for a penny, in for a pound.

I called the Park and told John what had happened, and I knew that he was extremely saddened by the news. When I got home, I caucused with my wife as to what to do next, if anything. But having seen the tortoise first hand, I knew he needed help. In order to get him that help, I was going to need some help of my own.

I began making calls to everyone I knew who might know someone who might be able to serve as an intermediary. A local church leader or animal activist? A member of his local community? Anyone who the man would trust and would listen to.

But every call ended the same: expressions of support, but no commitment of action. Simply put, no one wanted to get involved.

By 10:30 p.m., I was losing all hope, and in one last act of desperation, or brilliance (I was too tired to tell), I called Blaine Young, one of our county commissioners and owner of a local taxi cab company whose office is just blocks away from the manís house. "Maybe," I thought, "just maybe, Blaine has a taxi cab driver who knows the guy and who can help."

To my surprise, my e-mail to Blaine was answered in minutes. "Call me.... Whatís the address?" was all it said.

My hopes jumped. I called Blaine and relayed the dayís events. "Thatís just down the road from me. Let me walk down right now and see if I can resolve it."

"Great!" I said.

"Just one question," Blaine asked, "If he wants money for the tortoise, how much are you willing to give him?"

The question caught me off guard. I had been operating under the assumption that all I had committed was my time, now I was being asked to commit money. But it was a fair question. A question that needed to be asked and deserved an answer.

"$500," I replied.

"Youíre willing to pay $500 for a turtle?" Blaine asked in disbelief.

ĎYes," I said. I had already invested the penny, so might as well fork over the pounds.

"Ok, let me see what I can do." Blaine replied.

For the next 20 minutes I paced the floor of my kitchen. Did I really just offer to buy a turtle for $500? What was I thinking? How did the events go from a simple "will you help this tortoise," to me paying $500 for him? Things were spinning out of control and I was no longer sure where they would end up.

Twenty minutes to the minute the phone rang. It was Blaine. "He agreed to sell him to you for $350. Meet me at his house at 9 a.m. with the money and weíll do the trade."

I breathed a sign of relief. Three-hundred fifty bucks was a lot of money, but at this stage I no longer really cared. If that was what it was going to take to get the deal done, then so be it. I e-mailed the tortoise sanctuary and told them the deal was back on and to expect the tortoise Sunday afternoon

The night flashed in a blink of an eye, and before I knew it, I was sitting in front of the manís house again watching Blaine knock on the door. And knock more on the door. And even more. With each unanswered knock my heart sank. The deal was not on. I was not going to get the tortoise.

Blaine turned to me and it was obvious he too was dejected. The noise from the air conditioning unit in the house was masking the knocks and we had no way of knowing when the man would wake up.

Once again, I left empty handed, and once again I had to call John to tell him about my lack of success.

Blaine was committed to making one last try to get the tortoise before he headed out for a family trip, otherwise he would try again that evening upon his return.

I tried to keep my sprits up, but I found myself wandering aimlessly around the farm for the next few hours, trying to put together a fall back plan on what to do if Blaine should succeed, but only after I had left town.

I had no sooner cancelled for the second time the appointment at the tortoise sanctuary, when I got the call I had been waiting for. "I got him, come on down and get him," piped a cheery Blaine.

In what seemed like a flash, I was once again in town, albeit this time I knew it would be for the last time that day, and for that purpose.

Blaine had warned me that the man had tied a rope around the tortoiseís arm. He didnít know why the man had done so, just that he had. When I finally saw the tortoise I was thrilled, but one look at the nylon rope tied tightly around his arm, as if used as a leash, or tether to keep him from wandering, told me that my day was not over yet.

The tortoise had withdrawn the tied arm into the shell and was now having trouble extending the arm, making its removal difficult at best, and something I was clearly not qualified to do. There was only one place to go, back to where the events of the prior 24 hours had all started. Back to Ranger John.

Like me, Johnís elation at seeing the tortoise quickly turned to concern as he looked at the rope. For close to half an hour, John and another ranger gently worked with the tortoise encouraging it extend it arm far enough out so the could begin cutting the knots on the rope.

With each failed attempt, the idea of calling in a vet to sedate the tortoise and use surgical tools to remove the rope became a more probable solution. But, in one final attempt, John managed to coax the tortoise to stretch out his arm, allowing him to grab it long enough for the knots to be cut and the rope finally removed. The stage had now been set for the final act.

Saying his goodbyes, John gently placed the turtle in the back of my car and I headed off to my backup tortoise sanctuary, to the farm of Rusty Ryan, an avid turtle, tortoise and everything wild fan. Being on the Board of the Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve, I couldnít think of anyone I trusted more for the proper care and treatment of the newly freed tortoise.

Rusty and his family greeted us as we pulled into the driveway. Rusty quickly examined the tortoise, and as I recounted the dayís events, he shook his head in disbelief. As I watched the tortoise explore the temporary sanctuary Rusty had set up for him, Rusty laid out his plans for overseeing the tortoiseís upkeep. Or at least I think thatís what he was telling me. I was too busy enjoying watching the tortoise. While I canít say for sure, he seemed to have an expression on his face that said, "This will do, this will do quite nicely."

Epilogue

As Pat Harvey used to say, "And now for the rest of the story."

While everyone was working to secure the release and safety of the tortoise, its owners, Suelyn and Bill Athey were desperately looking for him. "Chester," as they called him, had last been seen on the day when the man who claimed to have found him was working on their property on behalf of Potomac Edison to repair storm damage. The couple had alerted the crew chief and advised him to warn his people that they owned a tortoise and he was on their grounds and to not hurt him. Thatís the last time they saw Chester.

Bought in a pet store 12 years ago and no bigger then a silver dollar, Chester lived the good life, roaming free on the Atheyís acres. It was his territory; he never strayed from it.

As the days went by, Bill Athey began to extend his search. His attention focused on the Potomac Edison crews. Had one of them picked Chester up? Bill eventually tracked down the central staging area for the electric companyís crews and managed to get the attention of a foreman. At Billís request, a note was put on a bulletin board asking anyone who had worked near his home and who might have information on the whereabouts of Chester to come forward. As luck would have it, several crewmembers did come forward, having read the news stories on his plight run in the Frederick News-Post.

Friday morning, more than 8 days after Chester had gone missing, Bill got the call he had been waiting for. It didnít take Bill long to find the initial story on the paperís Web site, and confirm his suspicions. The photo of the man who supposedly Ďfoundí Chester was in fact one of the temporary crewmembers that had been on Billís property doing work. The race was now on to recover Chester.

Bill quickly contacted the Frederick Animal Control. They contacted Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve. Strawberry Hill contacted Rusty Ryan, who then contacted me.

Once Bill had convinced me that he was in fact Chesterís owner and once Bill realized that I was not part of the original theft and was only trying to protect Chester, the conversation warmed up exponentially. Having lost animals before, I understood only too well Billís desire to once again have Chester home.

Less than 45 minutes after first contact, Bill pulled into my driveway. His first act was not to shake my hand, but to hand me $350, the amount I had paid to secure Chesterís release. If I had any doubts left in my mind about the quality of Chesterís owners, they evaporated forever, then and there.

As we drove to the Ryansí property, Bill recounted, blow-by-blow, the actions he had taken in his search for Chester. Once done, I provided my blow-by-blow on the efforts of all those involved to secure Chesterís safety. The more I told him, the broader the smile his face bore.

When Bill finally saw Chester, he bent down to say hello. Funny, he was the first person who didnít try to pick Chester up. Instead, he came down to Chesterís level. Chester resounded by stretching his head up toward Billís as if greeting an old lost friend.

As Bill carried Chester back to his car, all I could think about was the twists and turns this story had taken. On his return trip, Bill dropped by Cunningham Falls to thank the true hero of this story, John Zuke. For if it hadnít been for John, God only knows what Chesterís future would have been. John set the wheels in motion that led to his rescue and eventual reunion with his family.

Later that evening, Bill called me to thank me once more. As for Chester, he spent the evening grazing in his favorite field and then retiring to his regular resting spot for a long nightís sleep. While we will never know what he dreams tonight, I think itís safe to say that his final thoughts before he nodded off were, "Thank God Iím home."

Thanks to everyone who played a part in allowing those to be Chesterís last thoughts as he drifts to sleep.

Editorís Note: Just before this paper went to print, the construction company who had hired the individual who clamed to have Ďfoundí Chester, reimbursed Bill the $350, plus an additional $600 to make amends for what happened. Bill called me and asked if I would distribute the $600 to the organizations who facilitated Chester's rescue. Needless to say, I agreed.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman