Stumpy’s Misplaced Adventure

By Wildman Phil – Sept. 3, 2008

    I finally got to bed at 1 am this morning.  I usually get up at 5 am this time of the year to hunt dove.  I skipped dove hunting this morning.  I'd love to say I could just double up tomorrow, but it doesn't work that way.  I'm now down 10 dove for the year.  But some things are more important than dove hunting; very few, but some.

    My special tortoise Stumpy is one such important thing.  Stumpy was left on my porch about 4 years ago with only 2 1/2 legs.  He is completely missing his front left leg but has a specially designed wheel instead. 

    Stumpy's comrade, Goliath, is a typical African Sulcata tortoise.  He is basically the same size as Stumpy (about 40 pounds) which works well because sulcatas are naturally diggers.  Goliath has maintained a burrow for 3 years now which is also used by Stumpy and one of my desert tortoises, Jack.  The tortoises are usually active in the mornings and evenings wandering around the yard munching the grass.  We hadn't seen Stumpy out and about for about a week so I got a bit concerned.  Yesterday evening, once the other tortoises were out of the burrow, I decided to investigate.

    The first action was to get some eyes into the burrow.  My 4-year-old son Archie was the man for the job.  With the LED forehead lamp strapped securely in place he entered the burrow on his belly.  I held his ankles and had him completely in the burrow before there was a loud rumbling sound from deep within.  Archie was out quickly, explaining that he saw something that resembled the black ooze alien from Spider-man 3 clinging to the ceiling of the burrow and moving away.  The sound continued.  It sounded to me like Stumpy clunking against the side of the burrow.  He was alive, but stuck.  Numerous scenarios tumbled around in my mind.  A piece of rope drug down from one of the tortoises could be stuck in his wheel.  A plastic water bottle could have blown in and got him high-centered or side ways.  An alien symbiote could have him stuck to the wall.  I decided it was time to start digging.

    The tunnel goes straight for about 4 feet and then makes an abrupt left turn.  Archie could see around the corner but not very far.  I figured where I thought the burrow should be and started digging down.  I dug 3 feet and did not hit a tunnel.  Next idea... I needed to get a look myself.  Into the burrow I crawled.  It was a little tighter fit for me than it was for Archie.  I got about as far as he had and then realized if I went any deeper I would not be able to get back out.  I, also, could see around the bend but not very far.  The tunnel continued to curve slightly to the left.  I needed to reposition my hole.  I dug another 3 feet-deep hole in the newly theorized spot which was about 12 inches further west of the original hole.  Still no tunnel.

    Stumpy was still clunking around, assumedly fighting off the black ooze alien symbiote that had attached itself to him and rendered him incapacitated.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  Technology is usually the answer in these circumstances.  That was the case here, too.

    Luckily, I had the items needed for such a tortoise exploration; A length of rope, a small flashlight, a webcam, a laptop computer, and a remote controlled Hummer.  After assembling the exploration vehicle and charging the batteries we headed out to the burrow.



    It was passed the kids' bed time by this point, so the assistant duties were taken over by my wife, Teddi.  It was also dark inside and outside of the tunnel.  And comfortably cool.  We set up station with the laptop on a table on the top edge of the tunnel and set the hummer at the opening.  Down it went into the cavernous burrow, left, then a little more left, farther into the earth.  Watching the computer monitor and driving was just like it should be.  Suddenly, there was Stumpy looking at this little motorized vehicle with a bright light shining on him.

    He began to move and then the situation revealed itself.  Stumpy was up against a 2 inch ledge that was keeping him from climbing out of the burrow.  He showed his wheel to be working and unobstructed.  He moved around freely showing he was physically fit.  He just had the sheepish "What the earth did I get myself into?!?" look on his face.


    Next was the predicament of the extraction.  The exploratory vehicle was 10 feet into the burrow.  The Human Mole would not attempt such a claustrophobic rescue.  It was time to dig again.  Another hole positioned even farther west again yielded nothing.  Bring in the 5 foot-long snake hook.  The Hummer was sent into the hole again and then I climbed into the burrow with the snake hook.  Teddi held my ankles and monitored the video.

    "Left... Up...  Hook is pointing right....  Rotate...  Right there... You hit the wheel."  Teddi called instructions down into the tunnel as I reached around the corner and blindly moved the snake hook.  For a long 15 minutes I worked at hooking Stumpy, but to no avail.  He was fighting off the attack bravely, hiding his wheel, and moving his body into ungraspable positions.  Teddi hoisted me out of the subterranean catacomb.

    It was time to dig once again.  And dig I did!  I dug a canyon 6 feet long and 12 inches wide in the hardest ground on my property.  The ground was 30 inches thick at the point I stopped at.  I had dug around the corner so I had a straight shot at Stumpy.  With headlamp in place, I leaned over the edge with Teddi standing on my calves.  I finally had a clear visual on the stuck Stumpy.  After bending the snake hook to fit it down into the hole I was eventually able to grasp his wheel.  On the proverbial third try I was able to drag him free of his earthy confines.  He was helping me at this point, happy to be exiting his week-long prison.  I lugged his 40 pounds out onto the grassy yard where he relaxed for the night.  Mission accomplished, Teddi and I headed to a refreshing shower and then to bed, exhausted but satisfied.


    This morning I went out and surveyed the scene in the daylight.  As I stood there sweating in the hot Arizona sun, I rejoiced that we had executed the project at night when the weather was much more bearable.   Goliath had returned to his burrow and was lying in the entrance which is now 6 feet further along and 3 feet below ground.  Upon inspection I found that the burrow tilted even more steeply about a foot past where the new entrance is located.  My second hole was positioned correctly, but the top of the tunnel is about 6 feet below the surface at that point.  I had simply not dug deep enough.  I then unrolled a measuring tape into the hole and found that the burrow continues for another 15 feet!  At least that is where the tape hit a wall.  It could be another bend in the tunnel.  I have contemplated sending the Hummercam down again but only have 16 feet of USB cord attached to the video camera.  Had Stumpy been stranded at the end of the burrow I would have been digging through over 10 feet of earth to reach him!  I would have had to rent a backhoe to do it.

    Once I have returned Goliath's burrow to a more useable shape, I will work on devising a way to keep Stumpy out of Goliath's burrow and designing Stumpy's new personal burrow.  It looks like Stumpy will have his own yard where this sort of adventure will not happen again.  I am facetiously waiting on a reply from the state building inspector with construction codes for an ADA approved design.

    For now, all I can do is send the Hummercam down to the bottom of the tortoise abyss to find the black ooze alien symbiote that lurks in its depths...


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