After 30 days on the lam, massive media coverage, and the best efforts of a specially trained reptile-hunting dog, Zeke the turtle has been found in a Beverly backyard. He had traveled 1,000 feet and was discovered by a neighbor who wondered why his golden retriever was barking at a rock.
Zeke’s story captured the public’s attention after he escaped from the home of the Young family, which has owned the Eastern box turtle for 31 years. He made his slow getaway after the Youngs' cat, a naughty old fella named Bad Boy, opened the screen door to their backyard deck.
Searching for a lost turtle has one big advantage — it couldn’t have gone far — and several big disadvantages, chief among them the fact that it’s a turtle. When people see a dog or cat roaming, they may think it’s lost. When they see a turtle, they think it’s being a turtle.
The Youngs solved this problem by turning Zeke into the most famous turtle in Beverly history, blanketing their Ryal Side neighborhood with fliers, which caught the attention of the media and ultimately, the Youngs believe, brought Zeke home.
“If it weren’t for all the attention, the neighbor would have said, ‘Cool, there’s a turtle in the backyard,’ and that would have been that,” Debbie Young said.
Zeke was found Tuesday by Tom Fortunato, a neighbor whom the Youngs had never met. “He was just sitting there on the lawn, just waiting to be found,” according to Fortunato, who said he is not interested in the offered reward. “It wasn’t like he was too hard to catch,” he said.
Fortunato put Zeke into a box, where he cowered into his shell. But when Bob Young — who found Zeke in 1981 while stationed in the military in North Carolina — arrived to pick him up, Zeke perked up at the sound of his voice. Sort of.
‘He was just sitting there on the lawn, just waiting to be found.’
“He came out and said, ‘Uh, oh, it’s Daddy. I’m in trouble,’ ’’ Debbie Young said.
Zeke’s whereabouts for the last month remain a mystery. He returned in good health, hungry and very thirsty, but his shell didn’t have any bumper stickers from the spots he had visited on his way.
“I suspect he was probably doing turtle things,” said Joaney Gallagher, a herpetologist and co-owner of a company called Rainforest Reptile Shows, who helped search for Zeke with her trained reptile-hunting dog. “He probably hit all the local restaurants – worms, slugs, dandelion greens, different grasses.”
Gallagher said that Zeke did do something predictable; he headed to the right when he took off. “For some reason turtles always go right, and I don’t know why,” she said. “It’s just weird.”
In her heart, Debbie Young said she knew that Zeke — who was on his own in the wild for the first time since before David Letterman got a late-night talk show — was having the time of his life. “He’s been tramping around, having a blast,” she said. “And if he had been in a climate where he could survive the winter, I probably wouldn’t have searched so hard. But I was just worried that he wouldn’t make it. And I simply adore him,” said the 50-year-old, who has had Zeke since she was 19. “A piece of my heart was missing.”
The response to Zeke’s disappearance shocked the Young family; they got calls from far and wide from people who had spotted turtles. But it was the outpouring of support from their own neighbors, who checked twice before backing out of the driveway and made turtle-watching a part of their daily routines, that meant the most to them.
“The little girl next door, Catherine, looked every day before dinner for an hour,” Debbie Young said. Zeke was welcomed home with his favorite meal, Nick’s Roast Beef, and will soon get a new, luxury enclosure. It is a feel-good story for everyone. At least everyone but the cat.
When Zeke returned home, Debbie Young said, Bad Boy “turned up his nose at him and kind of said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ For the past 30 days he’s been the king, and he was not pleased that Zeke got first dibs on the roast beef.”Globe correspondent Melissa M. Werthmann contributed to this report. Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.