Andrea Madison didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary when she returned from a visit to her mom’s house on July 2.
But when she went to check on her 25-year-old African spurred tortoise, Tuksi, the gates to his enclosure were wide open and he was nowhere to be found.
“Someone had come on the property and opened both of these gates and he wasn't in there or in his burrow,” she said. “I was concerned about him having enough water while he was out there because he's been pampered his whole life and now he’s out there wandering around.”
Madison, who has lived in Elephant Head 20 years, has had the tortoise for about two years. He had wandered onto her property and after she searched for an owner without success she kept him.
When she discovered he was missing — all 100 pounds of him — she put up a “lost tortoise” sign on the community bulletin board, only to see the sign keep disappearing.
“I made a lost sign and put it up and the next day it was gone,” she said. “I put up lost tortoise signs five times and I was lucky enough that one lady who monitors an Elephant Head community page on Facebook had seen the sign, took a picture of it and shared it.”
For the next 22 days, community sightings appeared on Facebook, slowly revealing the journey of the four-legged wanderer. A group of caring neighbors determined they'd bring Tuksi home.
The first photo appeared on the Elephant Head Community, Amado AZ Facebook group on July 10, when a resident unaware there was a missing pet spotted what she called the “biggest desert tortoise we have ever seen.”
It wasn’t long before resident Jordan Juhlin recognized this was no desert dweller, this was a sulcata or spurred tortoise, the same variety as her own.
“My tortoise is about 22 years old and about 60 pounds,” Juhlin said. “We found her out here in Elephant Head close to two years ago, come to find out she was dumped out here about three years ago when her owner died and his daughter thought she was a desert tortoise so she released her.”
Juhlin began to chat with the growing number of community members taking an interest in the tortoise’s well-being. Tuksi's disappearance was uniting the community.
“Our community is very close and helpful to our own,” she said. “Honestly, it was just a really good excuse to meet different neighbors on the first night.”
When resident Melissa Dawn saw the photo she was reminded of something she saw a week prior in town.
“I remembered the sign on the community board about a missing tortoise,” she said. “My mother was on the way out to our place and I asked her to stop and see if that sign was still up, and sure enough. So I had her send me a picture of the missing tortoise sign.”
Dawn, who said she’s the type to take charge, especially when it comes to helping the voiceless, decided she couldn’t just sit back while the tortoise was wandering the desert.
She contacted Madison to tell her community members were on the case, and she launched a search party.
“I was upset and I love our community and would hope if we needed help we'd have people doing the same thing,” she said.
Dawn got four friends to join her one evening with flashlights to scope out areas he might be hiding.
“I was like, the weather is beautiful, it's almost dark, let's go on a tortoise search and they at first thought I was crazy. But almost instantly after, they were on board,” she said. “We were out there from about 8:30 to 9:45 p.m. just walking and looking in places that he would have hunkered down for the night.”
Despite their efforts, there was no sign of the tortoise.
On July 17, Karla Nickles heard her dog barking outside and was surprised to find a frightened tortoise. He had wandered about a mile from his home, though Juhlin said the species can cover 10 miles in a day.
“I saw this tortoise then he got scared by my dog and walked straight into the garage,” Nickles said.”I called my boyfriend and he told me about the lost tortoise. I took a photo and posted it in the group and everyone in the neighborhood was like, ‘That’s him, that’s the lost turtle.'”
She fed him apples, gave him water and Dawn helped her get in contact with Madison.
“I thought it was really nice because someone posted about this lost tortoise and everyone started working together to find it,” she said. “Some neighbors participated to find him and two weeks later here we are.”
Madison said she came over right away to bring him home and, though he was tired from his adventure, he was OK.
“He was tired, just sitting there, so I picked him up and took him home,” she said. “As soon as he was in his enclosure I put the hose in his dish and he stuck his head inside and was so thirsty he was just drinking and drinking.”
For Dawn, the whole event just affirmed the community spirit in Elephant Head.
“I feel if you're willing and able, help your neighbors,” she said. “Most people out here are willing to help out a neighbor in need.”
Tuksi is back to enjoying fruit salads of watermelons, cactus and strawberries.
Madison is left with a sense of relief and surprise that so many people around her would come together to help.
“There were so many people willing to find him... at this moment when everything is hectic it’s a nice thing to do and a wonderful feeling that the community is still together to help.”