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The Prodigal ... Turtle?

My first – and really only -- question after hearing the story I’m about to share with you is, “How did he get away in the first place?”

Solomon, a 15-year-old, 150-pound Sulcata tortoise from Ashland City, TN, was returned home to his owner, Lynn Cole, last week after being on the lam for 74 days. After posting signs and looking feverishly (I’m assuming the search was feverish, after all, Cole says she’s had Solomon since he was the size of a ping-pong ball), Cole learned Solomon had been found less than a mile from her home, and soon, they were reunited.

"If you knew the number of searches that were launched by ourselves and other community groups and individuals …" she told reporters. "He just eluded our ability to spot him."

So, there’s your setup, which brings me back to my first question: “How did he get away in the first place?” I don’t ask as an accusation. I’m not saying Cole was irresponsible or negligent. I’m sure she’s done a fantastic raising and caring for Solomon. I’m just amazed that something the size of – and three times heavier than – a bag of water softener salt and so slow that fables have been written about it could somehow escape without assistance.

My first reaction was, “That’s one determined turtle.”

Then, a second question popped into my head: “In 74 days, how is it possible Solomon – even being the epically-slow, fable-worthy turtle that he is – didn’t get more than three-quarters of a mile from home?”

After reading this story (and let me go no further before saying how glad I am that turtle and owner have been reunited and are both safe and healthy), and admittedly, not being well-read on turtles other than knowing the basics (they’re slow, shy, they live a long time and some folks like to make soup out of them), I did a little research, a little math and a little estimating.

Apparently (and I say “apparently” because I got this all from a Google search), the average turtle can travel between .13 and .3 mph. Using that range, I estimated that if Solomon walked 12 hours a day (which seems like a lot but reasonable if he was motivated or had a deadline to meet, and accounting for rest stops, searching for water sources and time to sleep), he’d cover between 1.56 and 3.6 miles per day.

I then took the average of those two numbers (figuring he’s an average turtle), which comes out to 2.58 miles per day. Giving Solomon credit for being in the prime shape of his life for a turtle (by his species’ standards, he’s a hale and healthy adolescent), this boosted my estimated distance to three miles per day.

So, after 74 days, had Solomon had wanted out “for good” (maybe he and Lynn had had an argument, it was time to spread his shell, or maybe he just wanted to experience life on the open road for a while), that would put Solomon 220 miles from home, or roughly the distance between Ashland City (where his trek began) and Tiptonville, TN assuming he was following the “shortest route” on Google Maps.

NOTE: I chose Tiptonville because it claims to be the “Turtle Capital of the World,” and Tennessee is where our story takes places. (Coincidence?) The “real” Turtle Capital of the World (for anyone living outside the greater Tiptonville area), appears to be The Gili Islands of Indonesia. The difference between the two capitals? I’m speculating here, but my guess is that one features everything from t-shirts and street monuments, to mixed drinks, hats, stuffed animals, shot glasses, and likely, an annual rally or festival to mark its claim, while the other is dedicated to turtle research, conservation and repopulation. I’ll let you decide which is which.

This led me to my third question: If Solomon had the ability to travel 200-plus miles during the time he was “loose” (and I use that term, well “loosely” because who ever thought of a turtle being “on the loose?”) and he was found less than a mile from his home, why did he leave in the first place?

And that, friends, is a question to which we may never know the answer because Solomon isn’t talking.

So, that brings me back to my initial question: “How in hell does one lose something so big and so slow in the first place?”

When it comes to that question, apparently Cole isn’t talking either, except to say she’s “not sure.” But she did say she gave Solomon a big bowl of his favorite foods once he got home, including collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower and watermelon rinds along with some bananas and carrots.

And, with some kibitzing from the Nashville Zoo and a local rescue group (wasn’t aware turtle rescue groups existed), she’s reinforced his enclosure and outfitted him with GPS (apparently, so next time he gets out, he can get better directions and not waste his time walking around the neighborhood for two months … WITHOUT ANYONE SEEING HIM).

“He's very happy to be home," she said, though I’m not sure how you’d be able to tell. Maybe I’d know if I lived in one of at least two – and there are probably more – turtle “capitals” of the world. (I think I know which one I’d ask to get my answer.)

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