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Owner recovers tortoise taken from his property

Saturday - 7/14/2012, 6:00am  ET

tortoise.jpg
Bill Athey, of Damascus, and Chester the tortoise are reunited Friday in Fairfield, Pa., more than a week after a utility subcontractor's employee brought Chester to Frederick. (Courtesy Frederick News Post)

After a nine-day, two-state reptile odyssey, a Damascus man has his pet tortoise back.

The tortoise, Chester, disappeared from Bill Athey's property last week and ended up in a Pennsylvania wildlife preserve.

"I'm very relieved, and I'm thankful for all the efforts on Chester's behalf," Athey said Friday.

Athey said July 4 was the last time he saw Chester, a 12-year-old African sulcata tortoise who wanders free on Athey's four-acre property and shares his bed with a 6-foot-long iguana.

After a few days of Chester's absence, Athey began to worry his tortoise had been taken.

Frederick resident Steven Warfield contacted The Frederick News-Post on July 6 to say a co-worker had found a "giant turtle" in the woods near Woodfield Country Store, a few miles from Athey's house, when the two were part of a crew working to restore electricity. Warfield took the reptile home, where he and a neighbor took turns feeding it, he said.

Potomac Edison workers were at Athey's property during last week's power failure, along with a contracted crew, to replace a power conduit.

Athey told the Potomac Edison crew about the tortoise but did not notify the subcontractor, he said.

Neither the subcontractor nor Warfield, who worked for the subcontractor, could be reached for comment Friday.

Frederick County Animal Control and Maryland Department of Natural Resources personnel took the tortoise from Warfield on July 6 and moved it to Cunningham Falls State Park, only to return it to Warfield the next day. They had mistakenly believed it was a native turtle and therefore illegal to keep as a pet.

Park rangers then asked Emmitsburg-area resident Michael Hillman, who occasionally makes donations to help rescued animals at Cunningham Falls, if he would help get the animal to a reserve, Hillman said.

Hillman wound up paying Warfield $350 for the tortoise through an intermediary: his friend Blaine Young, Frederick County Commissioners president. Hillman said he then took Chester to a veterinarian and eventually to friend Rusty Ryan's farm in Pennsylvania.

Ryan is a wildlife enthusiast and board member of Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve in Fairfield, Pa.

Athey began phoning Potomac Edison on Monday in an attempt to contact the subcontractor, he said, but heard nothing for three days.

He eventually drove to Mount Airy and reached a Potomac Edison supervisor who told him Friday that the animal was in Frederick County, Athey said.

Hillman learned through the Strawberry Hill animal reserve that Athey was looking for his pet and called him.

Athey picked up Chester on Friday and reimbursed Hillman the $350 he paid Warfield for the animal plus an extra $100, which Hillman said he will use for future animal rescues.

"I'm just glad the owner got his pet back and Chester is going back home," Hillman said.

Athey said he plans to collect the $350 from either Potomac Edison or the subcontractor.