The emotional bond between a human and an animal can be hard to explain.
A lot of people are skeptical if you talk about your dog or cat like a member of the family. It’s even harder when the animal is not your typical pet, and even harder still when that pet goes missing.
Boy Meets Girl, Girl Meets Tortoise
When grad student Aine Caroll met her boyfriend Andrew Weber, it didn't take long for her to figure out he was part of a package deal. Boris, Andrew's pet Russian Tortoise, was part of that package.
“We’d been dating for a couple weeks and I kicked Boris, on accident, which is the worst feeling in the world, when you kick a tortoise, 'cause they go flying," says Aine. "Andrew looks at me. And then he drops to the ground and makes sure Boris – all his limbs and everything – is fine."
"Okay, this is serious love," she told herself.
For Andrew, explaining that love was pretty straight forward. He got Boris as a gift from his mom when he was in fifth grade. That was 13 years ago.
“I've had it for half my life," he says. "So that gives some credence to it. As opposed to ‘Yeah just bought it three weeks ago. Don’t know why!'”
When he talks about the "ebbs and flows" of his relationship with the coconut-sized reptile, it sounds almost like he's talking about a long marriage. It's not always glamorous or exciting, but reliable, comforting.
When he left for college Boris went with him. When he got his first apartment, Boris was there.
"You’re never disappointed to see him, and you’ll see him and find a new appreciation for him and move on," he says.
He's just like a dog, Aine says, "but a dog that lives for 90 years, which is crazy."
That’s another thing about tortoises. They live a long time. If you buy one, expect to leave it to someone in your will. Unless the tortoise dies prematurely or it gets lost.
Boris got lost.
The Search For Boris
It was weeks before Thanksgiving. Aine had rushed out and forgotten to lock the gate in the yard where Boris was lounging. She came home exhausted and didn’t check on Boris.
“Andrew came home and he was like ‘Why is the gate open?' He thought it was a joke at first, which is really sad," she says. "I cried for like 24 hours. I just felt really bad I lost his best friend."
They didn't fight. Instead, they spent the next four days searching for him nonstop around their South Austin neighborhood.
Andrew put up missing signs. He scattered pieces of red bell pepper, Boris's favorite food, on the ground.
“I'll put these out, and then I’ll sort of make my... I guess for lack of a better word, 'rounds,'" he said on one search mission. "I'll try and cut these into shapes that are kind of definite so I can see if there are bite marks.”
He tried strawberries too, but some other animals kept stealing them.
If there was a silver lining, it has probably been meeting his neighbors. Andrew's become the “tortoise guy” on his block. People asked him how the search is going, shared words of encouragement. But there was one guy who was no good. He saw one of the "Missing" signs and approached Andrew on the street. He told Andrew he had Boris but he wanted the money up front. He wouldn’t even give proof of life.
Andrew asked how big the tortoise was, the man replied that he "'could be three-and-a-half by four inches, could be as big as the sea,'" Andrew says. "At that point I was like, okay, that makes no sense.”
It was a low point. Then, Andrew got a phone call.
'Good Luck For Somebody'
In November, just before Thanksgiving, two miles from where Andrew was spreading bell peppers, Anusuia Mangaonkar, or Anu, and her husband had made a strange discovery. It happened after they noticed their dogs barking at something in their back yard.
“My husband thought it was like a coconut shell or something," said Anu. "It wasn’t a shell, it was a tortoise!"
It was a Russian Tortoise, and it couldn’t have picked a better yard.
“As per Indian tradition, a tortoise coming into your yard is good luck," says Anu, who was born in India. Plus, she happens to rehabilitate injured animals. So far she's nursed three possum babies, a baby squirrel and a baby dove, she says.
But this was different, she thought. What if this tortoise belonged to someone else?
“It’s good luck for somebody, and I don’t want to take that good luck from somebody else,” she says.
Anu and her husband canvassed neighbors and put out the word that they had found a tortoise. When she mentioned it at their restaurant, New India Cuisine on South Congress Avenue, one of her employees said he’d heard of guy who was missing a tortoise on Reddit. That’s how she found Andrew. But when she called, Andrew wasn’t home. It was Aine who went to meet Anu.
“I was just like, oh my gosh, is this Boris!?" recalls Aine. "And I just kind of picked up the tortoise like a hamburger, just sort of looking into its eyes.”
"We were crying," says Anu. "It was like happiness tears rolling out of both of us.”
Aine took the tortoise, but she had to go to class before Andrew got home. So, she left it by a pillow where Boris likes to sun himself.
“I got to class, and I’m just like staring at my phone in class," she says. “And then, he texts me, and he’s like, 'This is so weird.'”
It wasn't Boris — it was a different Russian Tortoise. Also, it was a girl.
“It’s the strangest thing ever, the odds of finding the same kind of tortoise," says Andrew. "I just sat there for like five minutes thinking ‘Well, you’re not Boris, but you’re really nice.'”
Russian tortoises are from Central Asia, not South Austin. So it is a strange coincidence. To the untrained eye they also kind of look the same, but, mostly, Aine thinks she just really wanted it to be Boris.
I'll Be Home For Christmas, But Only in My Dreams
Christmas came and went. Andrew posted online to see if anyone else was missing a tortoise. But Frankie – that’s what Andrew named her, after one of his favorite songs – is slowly becoming a part of their home.
"I think yesterday she was hanging out by the fridge," he says. "That was kind of cool, 'cause that’s where Boris used to hang out.”
As for Boris, they’ve lost hope for a speedy homecoming. But everyone still believes he will return.
“He is testing Andrew," Anu says. "I think Boris is going to wait and wait and then come out one day and give him all the love he needs.”
It sounds crazy, but Boris could come back. There are a surprising number of stories about tortoises lost and found. One family found its pet tortoise after thirty years. It was living in their attic. Tortoises can slow down their metabolism when it gets cold and there’s no food around. Frankie, the new tortoise, may have been living outside for years.
So, by now Andrew and Aine are sure that Boris has dug himself a borrow deep in the ground. There he’ll dream through the winter and rise to come home when springtime rolls around.