There is nothing like the comforting presence of a beloved pet. For Lenard Hughes, that comfort remains—thanks to the kindness of a total stranger, the generosity of a famous TV veterinarian, and the wonders of modern technology.
If not for the miraculous intersection of these factors, George the tortoise might not be puttering around his Florida home today.
It was shortly after Hurricane Irma that George went missing. The intense storm knocked down a large, wrought iron gate in front of Hughes’ home, allowing George to escape, and he ventured off the property undetected.
“I looked for him for two days, up and down, in the woods. Everywhere.”
Hughes keeps a number of exotic pets, but George is special. He’s had the four-year-old sulcata tortoise since the reptile was “about as big as a 50-cent piece,” he said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
He was understandably in a panic when he couldn’t find George anywhere on his property, and he went through exhaustive efforts to try and track him down. He posted flyers around his neighborhood, as well as in a Facebook group, Loxahatchee Lost and Found Pets.
Hughes was starting to lose hope that he’d ever find George again. Having been raised in captivity, the pet lacked the survival skills to make it in the wild alone. The longer the slow-moving reptile remained at large, the less likely he’d be found alive
Just when all seemed lost, Hughes heard a car pull in front of his house and start frantically honking its horn. When he peeked outside, he saw a man running up the driveway with George in his hands.
“I’ve got your animal, but he’s badly hurt,” the man said.
The man was driving on Temple Boulevard when he saw George ambling down the street. Recognizing him from the posters, he pulled his car over and started making his way to pick George up. Just then, a car zoomed by and hit the tortoise, badly injuring him.
Worst of all, the driver of the car that struck George kept going without pulling over. When the man was asked if the driver so much as looked back, he replied “I don’t know.”
Fortunately, Hughes worked for years as a pediatric surgeon. He knew the large gash in George’s shell was serious.
“When I saw him it made me feel kind of sick,” Hughes said. But with time working against him and his beloved tortoise, his medical training kicked in and he started to clean George’s wounds.
Realizing that George would need surgery, he started searching for a doctor that specialized in exotic pets.
After a number of phone calls, Hughes finally came across the Broward Avian and Exotics Animal Hospital. The acclaimed facility is best known for its celebrity doctor, Dr. Susan Kelleher.
“I was thankful that I got to somebody who was comfortable with that level of trauma,” Hughes said.
Dr. Kelleher is best known for her show on Nat Geo Wild called Dr. K’s Exotic Animal ER. After rushing George to her Deerfield Beach office, Dr. Kelleher agreed to perform surgery on the tortoise if he made it through the night.
Fortunately he did, and surgery was performed the following morning. Several pieces of his shell had to be removed and a small perforation in his lungs had to be mended. The biggest concern now was keeping his internal organs protected from the elements.
With the shell nature gave him so damaged, Dr. Kelleher reached out to the South Florida Science Center for a solution.
The West Palm Beach facility has a top-of-the-line 3-D printer and agreed to make George a shell free of cost. They were able to get one out of the facility quickly, and George had a shell on his back in no time.
The prosthetic shell was covered in black duct tape, and will need to be swapped out for a different one every three years as George continues to grow.
“George is a strong animal and has a good chance of survival,” Hughes said.
George still has a lot of healing to do, and his recovery will be slow, but he seems happy to be alive. Doctors expect him to live a full life with his special, fitted prosthetic shell.
Meanwhile, Hughes has asked for help on a fundraising page for George’s medical bills.
It’s incredible what can be accomplished by a dedicated group, working as a team. George’s survival is a triumph of good-natured people using technology to make a real difference. Thanks to the kindness of a passerby, a TV doctor, and a pro bono 3-D shell, George will get to live a long, happy life.