100-year-old desert tortoise focus of custody battle

Published: Sep. 23, 2016 at 6:22 PM PDT
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A desert tortoise slowly crawls across a patio in a video captured by a smart phone camera. Two dogs sniff curiously as he makes his way. An off-camera voice cautions them not to drool on the tortoise.

"Hard Hat is going for a cruise today," she says. "It's a long way from his pen in the back yard,."

This slow-moving centenarian seems an unlikely candidate for the struggle over his custody, but the issues surrounding him are complicated and emotional.

"I get emotional if I have to talk about him for longer than a few minutes," says Lisa Helget, "because then I realize how screwed up the situation is."

Screwed up doesn't tell the half of it.

Lisa Helget says she adopted Hard Hat 22 years ago from a program run by the local tortoise club and authorized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

He is one of many of his kind who have been relocated from Southern Nevada, where their habitat is disappearing due to development.

In June, he went missing. Helget noted that fact on Facebook and asked neighbors to be on the lookout, but she wasn't immediately concerned. She believed he had burrowed under a shed as he'd done before.

People who have desert tortoises tell us they often burrow. We know of one Reno home which employs the help of their Jack Russell Terrier to dig up theirs.

Others say they like to get under things. One of Helget's Facebook posts shows Hard Hat lurking under a piece of equipment, munching on some strawberries shortly before he disappeared.

Still, as time went on Helget got worried. She was moving to a new home and he was nowhere in sight.

"We were close to moving and I hadn't see him physically out from under the shed."

She says she was checking lost pet websites, but finding no mention of him. We now know there was discussion on a Dayton online site, "Dayton Peeps." Helget is not a member of that group.

It would turn out a neighbor had found him a few days after she'd last seen him and had taken him to the Lyon County Animal Shelter.

There the story takes a disputed turn. Shelter staff say they weren't sure whether Hard Hat was a desert tortoise or some other species.

Authorities tell us the shelter should have called the Nevada Department of Wildlife or US Fish and Wildlife or someone from the Tortoise Group sent a picture and they could have easily settled the matter.

They would then have taken possession and found his owner or adopted him out through a long-established authorized process.

Lyon County says it did contact NDOW. An incident report says they were asked if the tortoise had a microchjp.

It didn't.

Today desert tortoises are given microchips before being adopted. Twenty-two years ago they were simply given a number on their shell. Over the years, Helget says, Hard Hat's wore off.

Lyon County Animal Shelter staff say they were then given the green light to turn it over to a rescue operation.

NDOW says they can find no evidence of any phone call and that wouldn't have been their response.

According to the incident report, the shelter staff was unaware of the tortoise rescue effort.

Desert tortoises are a threatened species, wildlife you can't legally have in your possession unless you've had it since before the law was written in 1989 or unless it's been adopted through a program authorized by US Fish and Wildlife.

The law would seem to say Hard Hat should never have been in the possession of the Rescue Society which has no permit to take in wildlife much less adopt it out.

But Angel Vathayanon, who runs the Reno Tahoe Rescue Society, smarting over the confrontation she had with Helget and what she says was signs Hard Hat was neglected--a cracked shell-- says she won't release it without proof that Lisa Helget is the legal custodian, medical records, and opinions from both the Lyon County DA and the Attorney General's office.

Helget feels she's being unfairly cast as an unworthy custodian of Hard Hat. She says the cracked shell is a decades-old injury for which he received veterinary care. The vet told her the shell would heal in time, which she said it partially did. In any case, she says the injury did not impede him in any way.

Vathayanon told us she took the tortoise to a vet prior to adopting him out and was told he had an infection. The incident report only says there was mold in the crack which they repaired.

Both NDOW and U-S Fish and Wildlife seemed determined to stay on the sidelines. The D-A and the Attorney General have yet to weigh in and both women feel they are acting in Hard Hat's best interest

With everyone dug in and Helget contacting an attorney, it seems this dispute is headed for court.

Meanwhile Hard Hat's location remains a mystery and Lisa Helget says she won't rest until she gets him back.

"There's no gray area here. They know they have him. They know they acquired him wrong. They know I'm here. They know I officially adopted him. What's the problem? Give me our tortoise back."