CASA GRANDE, AZ - A 100-pound tortoise featured in the Maricopa Monitor's "pet of the week" section has been reunited with his original owners, a full year after the reptile wandered off into the desert.
Rewind to April 2013.
Intel engineer Jonathan Grove, who volunteers at the Phoenix Herpetological Society, receives a phone call from Pet Social Worker Director Kimberly Diedrich, who needs to find a foster home for a tortoise found in Hidden Valley.
Grove agrees to take the African-spurred tortoise, or sulcata, and christens him "Eddie."
Eddie joins two female sulcatas in Grove's backyard, where he spent the days sunning himself and munching on grass.
"I don't have to mow my lawn at all," Grove said. "It looks like a golf course."
Sulcatas are herbivores and originally come from the hot, dry grasslands south of the Sahara Desert in Africa. They can live up to 200 years. While known for their friendly and gentle natures, they can grow up to 3 feet long and tip the scale at 150 pounds.
But by October, Grove decides he can't continue to care for Eddie and begins searching for the tortoise's owner.
"I went all over Hidden Valley handing out fliers, (but) basically all the people who called couldn't describe Eddie," Grove said. "Eddie's shell was so perfect that he was probably worth a lot of money. I really didn't want somebody to come and flip him and put him on Craigslist."
Meanwhile, the Maricopa Monitor posts Eddie as "pet of the week" in the middle of November.
It turns out Grove's hunt was a little off. Just west of Casa Grande, a second missing tortoise rings alarm bells for George and Mary Plumb. They can't find their tortoise, Goliath, anywhere, which is especially worrisome since the couple already lost a tortoise named Samson when one of their teenage sons left a back gate open nearly a year earlier.
George starts to ask friends for help, and the couple soon finds Goliath underneath a bush. So when a friend mentions he's spotted a tortoise in the newspaper, the Plumbs are puzzled.
"We kind of gave up on the big male," George says. "I assumed someone picked him up. We didn't worry too much because he was microchipped."
George drives to Maricopa to inspect Eddie, but he isn't sure if the big sulcata at Grove's home is truly Samson. The tortoise, though, immediately responds to his voice.
The two men call Diedrich, who arrives to scan the pet. Voilα! The microchip embedded in the animal's skin confirms Eddie belongs to George.
So, how does a tortoise wander 30-some miles in six months?
"They are very big explorers, especially the males," Mary said. The four tortoises at her home like to burrow under fences.
"There's probably one or two still out there," George admits. "I don't have the best tortoise enclosure, I'll be honest. I probably need a brick wall."
The Plumb family owns a menagerie of animals on their property just west of Casa Grande. Neighborhood kids and children from churches and schools come to see the animals, more than 73 in all. In addition to the tortoises, the Plumbs own a wide array of peacocks, guinea hens, chickens and snakes.
But the male tortoises are special. George rescued one 19 years ago from a busy road, effectively launching his turtle obsession. In reality, the Plumbs aren't sure which name -- Samson or Goliath -- belongs to which male tortoise; the two are so similar they were mixed up long ago, Mary said.
The large land-crawlers even have mates. In August, 12 babies hatched from eggs burrowed in the ground. The couple intends to give the hatchlings to their future grandchildren. They don't even have grandchildren yet, but their four teenage boys know what's expected down the road.
Today, George can identify the wayward tortoise who ventured into the wild. That tortoise is now shy and takes longer to exit his shell when the Plumb family comes around with carrots for snacks.
The couple knows he'll come around eventually. After all, 19 years old is pretty darn young for a tortoise. The family looks forward to decades of more reptile fun -- if the two rascals can manage to stay put.
"They are an instant love," Mary says.