BEVERLY — Searching for an escaped turtle requires more thinking than walking. You have to look with turtle eyes, to ask where you would go if you were a slow-moving reptile carrying a camper on your back, and you were on your own in the outside world for the first time in 31 years.
Zeke couldn’t have gone far. Driving that shell around town can’t be easy, and top-speed is about 300 yards per hour. Still, after much searching, and a blast of publicity that has made him a North Shore celebrity, he remains at large.
Zeke’s life on the lam began two weeks ago when Bad Boy opened the sliding screen door to the back deck at the Young family’s home in Beverly. Bad Boy is a 19-year-old cat who named himself, according to Debbie Young, and pawing open the door is one of his tricks.
“He’s just evil. I love him to death. Only the good die young, and let me tell you this cat is going on and on,” she said.
But she loves Zeke with all her heart. She has cried a lot thinking about him out there on his own. For a turtle, Zeke is said to be chill.
They’ve been together since Debbie Young was 19 years old, and she just turned 50. Her husband picked him up along a stream when he was stationed at a base in North Carolina. She’s been together with him ever since. Zeke is older than their 27-year-old daughter and was supposed to be her inheritance. You expect they’ll outlive you.
But with the screen door open to the outside world, Zeke made his getaway, which he did belly-flopping down three wooden stairs to the backyard, then heading for one of several possible exits under the fence.
As they searched, the family placed an ad in the local paper and fliers around town, which brought media attention and made Zeke the local talk. Still, there have been no sightings. But Joaney Gallagher, herpetologist, is still on the case.
Gallagher is serious about reptiles, and she wears an olive green jumpsuit with patches that only the pros are allowed to wear. She and her husband own a company called Rainforest Reptile Shows. She proposed to him inside an enclosure while he was performing at a show in Florida with a 17-foot crocodile. Their son is being groomed to take over the reptile business.
They do educational stuff, mostly, but they’re also the ones law enforcement call when they have a reptile problem. They get the alligators out of the Charles River. Sometimes, they use a dog named Kali who is trained to track reptile scents. One of her jobs is helping people in the unfortunate position of having snakes in their walls. They recently found an anaconda in an apartment complex in Rhode Island.
At dawn on a recent morning, Gallagher put Kali’s working vest on — the signal that it was time to track — and set out to look for Zeke at the time of day he was most likely to be active.
In terms of escape routes, the worst-case outcome was that Zeke had gone to the left corner, where their backyard meets a mess in a neighbor’s yard that must look like a collapsed amusement park to a turtle.
The neighbors are renovating, and in that corner, crowding a woodshed that is up on pallets, is a tangle of junk — mangled radiator metal, chopped wood chunks, and big bends of pipe waiting to be dealt with. Debbie Young is petrified that Zeke went in there. According to Kali’s nose, that’s exactly where he is. She whined when she got to the spot.
“If I was a box turtle, that’s where I’d go,” Gallagher said, confident that Kali was right. “I’m sure he’s got plenty of slugs and worms and a place to burrow down.” The pallets could provide a nice place to live and even hibernate, something wild turtles settle down for in October. Even indoors, Zeke generally goes into semi-hibernation and cuts way back on eating.
In the wild, a box turtle would live in about a 750-square-foot area its entire life, Gallagher said. They stay local. He might be fine under the junk and just not reemerge until spring. That would be lousy because Debbie Young signs Zeke’s name on the family Christmas cards.
Finding a turtle, as opposed to the traditional lost pets — the dog and the cat — presents its own set of challenges, large among them the fact that the logical thing to think when you see a turtle alone in the wild is that it’s just a turtle.
We leave them alone and assume they are not lost. They have proven themselves to be quite good outside on their own when left alone.
Eastern box turtles can live to be 100. But Zeke has been a domestic turtle for so long, the question is whether he remembered how to navigate solo. This was a Beverly turtle, after all; he preferred shrimp and Nick’s Roast Beef.
But the word on Zeke has most certainly gone out. He is the most famous turtle in Beverly history. The Youngs have everyone in the neighborhood looking twice when they back out of their driveways. They’ve canvassed the area as far afield as seems reasonable. But still no Zeke.
The day after Kali’s whine, Bob Young dug into the junk pile, but there was no sign of him. He could be anywhere. This turtle has gone rogue.
In the yard of the Young house, Gallagher opened a plastic toolbox. Inside was her own box turtle — of course she has one — and she placed it in a low bit of plantings along the fence. It disappeared like salt into stirred soup.
Our fugitive has been on the run for 18 days. Top traveling speed over even ground and barring injuries is 1/6 of a mile per hour. That actually suggests quite a small radius, because Zeke hardly ever moves that fast and is a big fan of staying still. He’s close, and for the first time in a very long time, he’s getting some use out of the camper.