A week before Thanksgiving, Hoss, a 35-pound sulcata tortoise, slips his enclosure at Sam and Christy Wheeler’s 24-acre farm in unincorporated Hood County, and after roaming the neighborhood for three days, finds his way to Glen Rose Highway, a half mile away.
The stay-at-home mom and her plumber husband searched for their pet in the well-tended pastures of neighboring farms.
“We looked everywhere for him,” Christy told the Star-Telegram. “I went and posted on every social media page that I could think of, and reported it to the Hood County Sheriff’s office. I was going crazy.”
Apparently, their African spurred tortoise had hitched a ride on a big black dually to a ranch in Hico, Texas, nearly 50 miles southwest of their home.
The tortoise had booked it out of the Wheeler property, made his way up the grassy spaces along Neri Road and eventually reached the four-lane divided highway by Saturday afternoon. And then he decided to cross the road.
“I have no idea why Hoss crossed the road,” Christy said laughing. “That is the question, right?”
As Hoss made his way east across the southbound lanes, a motorist in a car almost hit him. A big black truck trailing behind nearly hits the car and Hoss, braking hard to miss both.
The driver of the first vehicle just wanted a selfie with the tortoise.
The driver of the truck just wanted to avoid a collision.
After nerves had been calmed, the selfie was snapped.
Deanna Lakey posted on social media the picture of her sister and Hoss in the back of the truck: “This tortoise was walking along Glen Rose Highway 144. Did someone lose a pet?”
How Hoss walked out of his pen in Hood County, Texas
Christy had just fed Hoss a breakfast of green and red leaf lettuce on Wednesday, a week before the holiday. Everything seemed normal.
Hoss devoured his meal like he has done since the Wheelers picked him up along with a hatchling they named Little Joe at the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas, back in March.
By the afternoon, the outside temperature had hit 70 degrees. It was warming up. Perfect conditions for Hoss to explore. And explore he did.
No one had noticed that the gate to Hoss’ enclosure had been left ajar. It would have been hard for Christy to notice since she routinely just hops over the two-foot fence around the enclosure.
By noon, Hoss was gone.
Christy did not panic. Hoss was known to slip out of his enclosure and park himself at a side door of the two-story farmhouse.
It’s his way of saying, “Let me in the house,” Christy said.
She went looking for Hoss inside the house. Sam or their 9-year-old daughter, Madison, may have let their pet tortoise inside.
She looked at the warm spot under a 5-foot stuffed giraffe toy just to the side of the kitchen.
“That’s his favorite place in the house,” Christy said.
Hoss was not there.
She walked the entire first floor of the 4,000-square-foot house in search of Hoss. He was nowhere to be found.
He sought Sam’s help. They both walked the spaces around the house.
Sam said Hoss has squeezed himself in the culvert by the gate in the past. “I’ve had to use a long stick to push Hoss out of there,” he said with a laugh.
No one was panicking. Yet.
By sundown, Christy was frantic. Hoss was gone.
‘Crazy woman’ looking for her lost tortoise
Christy had plastered notices all over social media — on Facebook and Nextdoor — pleading for any information about her lost tortoise.
She’d even reported Hoss missing to the Hood County Sheriff.
No one had seen Hoss.
On Saturday afternoon, three days after Hoss broke out of his pen, the Wheelers were on their way to catch a Gary Allan concert at Billy Bob’s Texas in the historic Fort Worth Stockyards. They stopped for gas at the RaceTrac on U.S. 377 in north Granbury.
While Sam went inside the the gas station for an energy drink, Christy’s phone lit up.
“It just went nuts with my friends texting me that Hoss had been found,” she said. “Like a crazy woman I ran into the store looking for Sam.
“We’ve gotta get out of here,” she tells her husband.
“Where to?” Sam asks.
She had no idea.
It was only a post on social media. The sister of a woman who took a selfie with Hoss had posted a picture of their lost pet.
They still did not know where Hoss was.
Christy asked her friend, Delana Trewin, to help track down the woman who posted about Hoss.
“She should be with the FBI,” Christy said by explanation of why she called Trewin. She is good at digging up information.
Besides, “Delana is the godmother of all my critters. Hoss included,” she added.
The owner of a Granbury tattoo parlor went sleuthing around in her laptop.
‘I was so excited’ to finally find Hoss
It took a couple more days to find the driver of the black dually that had taken Hoss south to a ranch 15 minutes outside Hico.
Christy called and was told her tortoise was safe and warm inside a barn with the ducks and chickens.
“Apparently, Paul, the driver of the black dually, Googled ‘tortoise’ to find out what kind Hoss was,” Christy said. “Once he realized Hoss was a sulcata tortoise, he put him in the barn.”
Christy said she was still not convinced he had her Hoss.
A snapshot of her beloved tortoise cozy under a heat lamp on a bed of straw reassured her.
“‘All he’s done since I picked him up is hiss,’ he told me,” Christy said.
Now, she knew for sure he had the right tortoise.
They made arrangements to meet. Christy picked the parking lot of the Hico Police Station, “A safe place for a meet,” she said.
She and Sam raced south to Hico. They got there before Paul.
He finally drives in the lot in a white dually.
Wrong color ride, she thought.
He gets out, Christy said, and opens the door to the backseat.
“I looked inside and there was Hoss,” she said. “I was so excited. I just gasped.”
Hoss was coming home.
Hoss’ home on the Hood County range
Sam estimates Hoss is around 8 years old. A young‘un in the world of the large African tortoises. Sulcata can live up to 70 years in the wild, and 80 to 100 years in captivity.
“The adult size of turtles and tortoises vary by breed. For instance, the sulcata tortoise can easily weigh up to 200 pounds,” according to the Texas A&M Veterinary Medicine website.
The Wheelers had done their research.
Sam built a fenced enclosure on the side of their house from the remains of a garden — “Killed by the Texas heat,” he said. He dug the hard soil four feet deep with a tractor so he could set the chicken wire fencing down in the dirt.
“I learned that sulcata love to dig,” he said.
“You’d be amazed at how strong they are,” Christy chimes in.
In the wild, the sulcata tortoise will dig burrows to escape the heat. But in Texas, where temperatures can drop into the teens in winter, a hothouse is necessary.
Hoss’ 12-foot by 30-foot enclosure has a covered 6-foot by 6-foot house with daylight and UVB lamps and a heater to keep him warm at night.
The simple hook gate has now been reinforced with a large chain to ensure it stays closed.
The Wheelers have a brood of critters on the farm keeping Hoss company: two highland bulls, a miniature donkey and horse, four dogs, a Mississippi map turtle and, of course, the hatchling Little Joe.
“We both love animals,” Sam said.
In his telling that is one common trait they share. Otherwise, “We are opposites. I am rough, loud and crazy and she’s beautiful and nice,” Sam said.
He used to work in the oilfields and she was a veterinary technician. When Madison was born, Christy stayed home and Sam went back to plumbing work.
They’ve dreamed of a property where they could raise animals. In October of last year, they bought the Neri Road property. A few months later, they got Hoss.
So, what happens to Hoss after they’re gone?
“We’ll have to will him to somebody,” Sam said.
Until then, Hoss is back home packing an Apple AirTag on his shell just in case.