Judge's order may aid in search for missing pet tortoise

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RENO, Nev., (KOLO) - It was essentially a custody battle that brought two sides before a Washoe County judge Thursday, though as the judge admitted it was an "unusual case."

The center of all this attention is a middle-aged desert tortoise named Hard Hat. Lisa Helget adopted him through an authorized program relocating tortoises being displaced by development in southern Nevada.

For 22 years he was a valued member of the family. But a year and a half ago, as Helget was staying with friends as she waited for a new home to be completed, Hard Hat disappeared.

That's not a reason for immediate alarm; as tortoise keepers will tell you, they often burrow. It was thought she was under a shed at the friend's house. In fact, he had wandered away and a neighbor who found him turned him into the Lyon County Animal Shelter.

Desert tortoises are a protected species and can only be legally adopted through an authorized agency. The animal shelter should have contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the state Department of Wildlife. They would have turned it over to the Tortoise Group, authorized to reunite Hard Hat with her owner or adopt her to another qualified custodian. Instead they turned her over to the Reno Tahoe Rescue Society, which had no license to take in or adopt out restricted animals.

When Helget learned where Hard Hat was, she approached the society's founder Angel Vathayanon, who refused to turn him over, claiming he showed signs of neglect. The meeting did not go well. Both sides lawyered up. And that's why they were were in court January 4, 2018.

Attorneys representing Vathayanon and Lyon County were seeking to have the whole thing dismissed. Attorneys for the rescue society argued Helget had in effect abandoned Hard Hat, making little attempt to locate him, a charge Helget denies.

"I went back to the address where he was lost every day to feed, to put out lettuce and water, to talk with any neighbors that might be around. I went back every day. I didn't abandon him."

Her attorney said that argument flew in the face of Helget's demonstrated determination to spend whatever was needed to get him back.

There may be a big problem reaching that end. Vathayanon claims she adopted Hard Hat to a person in Henderson, who then moved back to our area and --in an ironic replay of what happened to Helget-- lost him in the course of the move.

She's refused to share that person's identity, arguing that might expose the man to harassment. Helget's attorney said he had previously offered to keep that identity from his client and contact the man himself, so Hard Hat's last location could be known and a search could begin.

And that's where things ended in court. Judge Kathleen Drakulich ordered Vathayanon's attorneys to determine in 48 hours if their client is willing to surrender that information. For Helget that counts as a win.

"I feel more positive than negative today. I just want my tortoise. I just want Angel to do the right thing and give me my tortoise back and we can all go back to our lives."