Thursday, September 26, 2013

A giant tortoise goes missing in West County, and time is running out

13 hours ago*By Todd C. Frankel 314-340-8110

A young child stands by two African spurred tortoises, providing some perspective for the size of these animals. The tortoise on the left, with the darker shell, is Leo. He has been missing since June 12. Both Leo and the other tortoise, Charlie, belong to Viola Haegele of Town and Country. Photo courtesy of Haegele.

Viola Haegele has been looking for her pet giant tortoise for three months.

The tortoise's name is Leo. She has posted fliers of Leo in Wildwood and Glencoe. She has posted messages about Leo online. She has offered a $1,500 reward for his return. She has called police and veterinarian offices repeatedly.

Her public pleas have focused on the tortoise's unmistakable size. It would take two people to pick him up, the fliers say, as he weighs 125 pounds. His mottled brown shell takes up the same space as an adult holding her arms in a circle, about a three-foot diameter.

Leo would seem hard to miss. Except he's still gone.

Now, fall is here. Nights are cooler. Freeze soon will set in. So time is running short.

Leo is an African spurred tortoise, a desert species that doesn't hibernate. He won't survive outside in the cold for long.

"The thought of never seeing Leo again is disheartening," Haegele, who lives in Town and Country, said Wednesday.

Leo disappeared June 12.

He was being temporarily boarded with Haegele's veterinarian, who kept the animal in his backyard in the Wildwood area, near the intersection of Manchester Road and Highway 109. The vet had pet tortoises, too. But Leo was bigger than the others and somehow pushed his way out of his enclosure.

And then he was gone.

There was no sign of Leo, until the middle of July.

A woman driving along Manchester Road said she spotted a giant tortoise along the roadway near the intersection with Highway OO. She thought it was odd, such a big tortoise in the suburban wild. The next day, the woman saw one of Haegele's signs. She called. Haegele and others rushed out. Nothing. If it was Leo, the sighting meant he had walked six miles.

"They're not as slow as people think," Haegele, 49, said.

Leo is 9 years old, a grown adult. Haegele has another tortoise named Charlie at home. She bought them both in South Carolina when they were babies. She has loved turtles all her life. Growing up in Maplewood, she collected box turtles and water turtles, which she called "dime turtles" because she could buy them for 10 cents at the Soulard Market. She and her husband built her two giant tortoises a special room in the basement, with heated floors and window light and outside access.

Leo responds to his name, Haegele said. He can follow simple hand commands, such as "come here." He does not bite. He likes to have his head petted. He'll eat out of your hand.

Last weekend, as the nights turned colder, Haegele felt she needed to do more. She boosted the reward to $2,500, fearful that someone was keeping Leo as a pet. She posted new fliers. She mailed 200 postcards to addresses near where Leo was last seen. If anyone sees Leo, she wants them to call her at 314-565-9103.

She is not yet willing to believe that Leo -- as unmistakable as he is -- is gone.

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