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The great tortoise escape: Where did Diablo go ?

The great tortoise escape: Where did Diablo go ?

It’s been nearly a week since Diablo the 115-year-old tortoise disappeared, and if Aesop’s fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare elicits a single question, it is this: How far could he have gotten?

That’s what everybody is asking at Manzano del Sol Village, a midtown Albuquerque senior living community of about 200 residents, where Diablo and his mate, 90-ish-year-old Delilah, have become a fixture.

During the six months of the year when Diablo is not hibernating, he and Delilah and their offspring inch their way around the lush courtyard garden at Manzano del Sol, with its pond and shaded sitting areas.

“The last time anybody saw him was last Friday morning, and then nothing,” said resident Millie Tjeltweed, who brought the tortoises to the community seven years ago.

“The gardener and I looked everywhere for the first two days, and then everybody who lives here and can walk began searching. Even people in wheelchairs have been out poking around,” said Tjeltweed, who at 91 years old is about the same age as Delilah.

The age of the tortoises, she said, was determined by “someone from the herpetology department at the university before I got them.”

And no one is more upset about Diablo’s absence than Delilah, who hasn’t come out of her little shelter in days.

Lest anyone think that Diablo had a wandering eye and took off looking to have an extratortal affair, Tjeltweed put the kibosh on that.

A resident of Albuquerque since 1953, Tjeltweed originally got Diablo, Delilah and another male tortoise named Festus 35 years ago from a neighbor who picked them up from the side of a busy Arizona highway out of concern they were about to be run over. She adopted the tortoises when the neighbor moved.

“When I had the three of them in my backyard, Diablo fell in love with Delilah, and Festus wasn’t willing to give her up,” so Diablo and Festus frequently butted their little reptilian heads, she said.

Festus died in hibernation the first year that Tjeltweed moved to Manzano del Sol. Diablo was then free to focus his full romantic attentions on Delilah, who Tjeltweed described as “an enchantress.”

“She’d go up and walk around him and then walk off,” apparently a pretty seductive come-on in the world of tortoises, she noted. Despite their advanced years, Diablo and Delilah were seen in the throes of tortoise passion as recently as last week, and every year Delilah lays eggs.

Because of Diablo’s seemingly healthy constitution, those searching for him do not believe he suddenly became ill and went off somewhere to die alone, although it’s possible. According to a number of online sources, desert tortoises can live from 60-80 years, but many have been reported to live 150 years.

With his hard shell, and weighing about 10 pounds, Diablo is likely too heavy to have been carried off by a hawk, owl or other bird of prey commonly found in Albuquerque, said Tjeltweed, so scratch “fowl” play off the list.

There is a possibility that someone left a gate to the garden open and Diablo simply wandered away. It happened once before.

“He went missing for four days. We searched the grounds for him and he was later found inside a shed on the property,” she said.

Delilah also wandered out of the courtyard once and somehow made it to the street where she was run over by a car. A veterinarian determined that her organs and legs were fine. He mended a crack in her shell with epoxy glue. Residents of Manzano del Sol collected $400 to pay the vet bill.

One possibility that residents don’t want to contemplate is that somebody picked up Diablo and carried him away.

Residents have been posting missing signs containing a photo of Diablo throughout Manzano del Sol as well as around the immediate neighborhood, and are even talking about offering a reward.

Diablo, Delilah and their offspring “are an integral part of our community,” said resident services director Vera Schaffer. “We even have an annual tortoise parade around April 1. That’s when they come out of hibernation and we place them in a wagon made up like a float and wheel them through the halls to drums and noisemakers, and the people in their rooms hear all the hoopla and come out to help us welcome them back for the season.”

Which may provide yet another explanation – Diablo doesn’t want to be found.

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Diablo, a desert tortoise who makes his home in the garden at Manzano del Sol, has been missing for nearly a week. (Courtesy of Manzano del Sol)