Like most mature African spurred tortoises, 22-year-old Frankie is big and slow. But what the desert-dwelling reptiles lack in speed, they make up for with determination.
”And [Frankie] was determined,” said Noralyn Snow. “Evidently.”
On Oct. 3, Frankie walked out of his enclosure at the William E. Christoffersen Salt Lake Veterans Home near the University of Utah’s campus and traveled over a half-mile — potentially crossing eight lanes of traffic on Foothill Drive — to the U. of U. Health Orthopaedic Center before campus security spotted him and called police.
“I’m as amazed as anybody,” said U. Police patrol Lt. Ryan Speers.
Frankie’s journey began sometime between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., after a nurse didn’t lock a gate properly, said Snow, the veterans home administrator. So Frankie made a break for it.
Snow knows this because security cameras caught the low-speed escape on video. After that, Frankie’s journey becomes less clear.
To get to the orthopaedic center, Frankie would have had to cross Foothill Drive, a busy and wide thoroughfare with a posted speed limit of 40 mph, though cars there are known to travel faster than that. Or, Speers speculated, he could have followed the trickle of Red Butte Creek, which runs through a tunnel beneath the road and opens up behind the center.
Unscathed — and not shy
Frankie also spent some time on Wakara Way, which runs in front of the orthopaedic center, about a mile from the Hogle Zoo, said longtime reptile rescuer Cary Drage, of Creature Encounters. The influx of calls the zoo received about the tortoise is how Drage, who ultimately took Frankie in for a few days, first learned there was a tortoise on the loose. People thought Frankie had escaped from the zoo, and someone from the university called to see if Drage could help.
Drage picked up Frankie later near the Natural History Museum, where campus security had been watching him. Then he brought Frankie home to his four other tortoises, including some males who weigh more than 120 pounds and would dwarf Frankie, who weighs more than 40 pounds.
Since males can be territorial, Frankie spent time with a couple of smaller females. As far as Drage could tell, Frankie was unscathed during his trek. He had no abrasions to suggest that he was ever flipped on his shell in traffic.
Initially, both Drage and university police suspected that someone had abandoned Frankie on campus. Drage, who helps out the zoo when people try to relinquish their exotic pets, said it happens often. Since this type of tortoise is native to the Sahara Desert, any abandoned in the Utah foothills would die in the winter without care. Drage said he noticed right away that Frankie was domesticated.
“I stood in front of him, and he was not shy. He walked right over my feet, right through me. I was able to touch his head, and he didn’t pull in,” Drage said. “So I knew he had been used to human interaction.”
Frankie was, indeed, used to a lot of human interaction. His den at the veterans home is in an outdoor courtyard, at the center of the facility, where veterans often hang out with him or feed him some of his favorite snacks, including apples and bananas. Snow said Frankie walks up to his favorite residents when they come outside.
Drage said it’s hard for tortoises to disappear, since they’re so big, so he expected that if Frankie had an owner who wanted him, he’d hear from them in a few days. Drage planned to hold on to Frankie for a month to see if anyone would pick him up, then work on finding him a new home.
‘The residents were really sad’
Robyn Salisbury, with campus security, said finding Frankie was “the excitement” of her shift. She posted a video of Frankie to her Facebook that day, showing Frankie shuffling around on the wooden floor of a rolling cart. She hoped to find him some help.
“Don’t climb off of there. It’s OK,” she cooed. “You so scared.”
She said in the post that she’d tried to feed him a banana, but he just sniffed it.
“I think he’s too scared to eat,” she wrote.
A day later, someone commented saying the veterans home had posted about its missing tortoise, Frankie. That was the break in the case she needed.
Authorities connected Snow with Drage, and, the next day, Drage brought Frankie home.
“They were so happy to have it back,” Drage said. “The residents were really sad when they lost their tortoise.”
The gate Frankie escaped from has since been fixed. But that didn’t stop him from sniffing around the area Monday, the Tribune observed.
Perhaps he was plotting his next escape.