Two months after her family’s pet escaped from the backyard, one Oro Valley mother received a bit of unexpected news last month: Bus the tortoise was safe and sound, and on his way home.

Wendy Kiwanuka, who lives in the Copper Creek community with her husband and three children, said she realized something was amiss when Bus the African spurred tortoise did not come to the back door of their home for food one morning. Renovations were currently underway in the backyard to improve the tortoise’s living space, and Kiwanuka said she thinks Bus ran out one night while new flagstone was being moved in.

“He decided to hightail it out of here,” she said. “People laugh, but he’s really fast.”

The family went searching for their pet, but to no avail, and Kiwanuka said they had given up on ever seeing Bus again – until she received a private message on Facebook on Friday, July 21 from a Town of Oro Valley employee that Bus had been located.

While Bus’ adventures over the intervening months remain a mystery, he turned up that Friday on the roadway near the Oro Valley Public Library. The desert traveler first made contact with Oro Valley Police Department Sgt. Jeff Thomas, who responded to a call from a concerned community member who did not want to see the animal hurt or killed by a passing vehicle. Sgt. Thomas, thinking Bus to be just another desert tortoise, gently placed him in the nearby desert, and went about his day. 

Seemingly unhappy with being moved against his will, Bus was soon the subject of a second radio dispatch after he made it to the Oro Valley town hall site, where he was observed trying to enter the Community Development and Public Works facilities.

One town staffer with more experience involving reptiles and amphibians realized Bus was more than likely someone’s pet (and not a desert tortoise), and decided to take him home.

That afternoon, Kiwanuka received a message on Facebook after her post from earlier in the summer about Bus’ escape was remembered by town staff.

“When she contacted me, I literally got chills, because there is no way people care that much; to put in the legwork to find the post and to contact me,” she said.

After positively identifying the long lost pet, the family welcomed Bus back to their home, and Kiwanuka said she was surprised their tortoise had survived on his own for so long.

According to James Jarchow, a consulting veterinarian for reptiles and amphibians at the Reid Park Zoo, the African spurred tortoise (also known as a Sulcata tortoise) manages well in the southwest climate. Hailing from the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa, Jarchow said the Sulcata adapts well to living in Tucson.

“It is not uncommon for them to survive, in fact it is a very common thing – even for them to grow,” he said. “There are adults that are found loose in the Tucson area.”

According to Jarchow, Bus’ wandering behavior is quite normal, as a wild tortoise in Africa develops a territory spanning great lengths across the plains throughout its lifetime.

“They have normal home ranges much larger than our backyards, and will instinctively explore and establish territories as they get older,” he said. “They control substantial sizes of territories in nature, in terms of square kilometers instead of an acre, or even 20 acres.”

Though they do not possess a sub-Saharan plain for their pet tortoise, Kiwanuka said she and her family will be keeping a closer eye on their African pet – and their gates.

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