BURNET — When Tilly was a silver dollar-size hatchling, his caretaker decided to throw him away.
“A friend of my brother asked someone to watch the tortoise for him while he was gone, but, after about two weeks the girl said, ‘I’m not going to take care of it,’ so she threw the aquarium and everything in the Dumpster with him in it,” said Jon Potts, owner/operator of Tilly’s Armory, 106 West St.
“My brother jumped in the Dumpster and got him out,” he said. “He asked me if I wanted him, and I said, ‘Yes, this is a cool pet.”
Tilly, the African sulcata tortoise, also referred to as an African desert tortoise, was more than a “cool” pet but a rare one whose natural habitat is the Sahara desert in northern Africa.
The species is distinguishable from water turtles, typical of the area’s waterways, by its brown, pyramided shell.
Tilly thrived for several years as Potts’ new pet and eventually became the inspiration in 2002 for the name of his new business venture selling firearms, accessories and ammunition.
“For the shop, we had to have an assumed name. Every name had already been taken,” he said. “I thought: ‘Tilly’ and a ‘tortoise with armor’ and the ‘shell.’ We’ll name the shop Tilly’s Armory (to) have a personal name instead of a cookie-cutter, generic name.”
Tilly spent his days at the shop with his owner, and customers viewed him as an honorary mascot for the business.
So, on June 23, when Tilly disappeared and after several hours of searching, Potts thought he had seen the last of his longtime pet.
“I set him outside while I locked up. Maybe three minutes go by. I go outside, and he’s gone,” he said. “We thought someone picked him up thinking he was a water turtle and took him down to the creek.”
Potts filed a police report.
“I was pretty upset. I was prepared for the worst. He’s gone. There went 15 years,” he said. “I’ve had him longer than any other animal. He’s outlasted all my girlfriends.”
That night Potts designed a missing pet poster and placed it on his business’ Facebook page, offering a $1,000 reward for his return.
Several “shares” and concerned comments followed.
“We got quite a bit of response from that,” he said. “There were a lot of false sightings — more water turtles than tortoises.”
A woman from Boerne spotted one on her porch and offered to give it to Potts as a replacement, but he declined.
On June 25, he received a phone call from a friend who said he saw a tortoise in a Facebook page photo with a child at Hamilton Creek Riverwalk Park, located about a block from the business.
Potts’ friend went to the riverwalk, negotiated the tortoise away from the family from Houston who had planned to take him home as a pet.
“He brought him back. He had some health problems. He’d been thrown away (once) already,” Potts said. “I’m not saying the kids wouldn’t have appreciated him, but he might have died.”
Potts described Tilly’s demeanor as “shell-shocked.”
“After a couple of days,” he added, “he was the old Tilly.
His friend declined the reward money.
“He wouldn’t take it,” he said.
Since Tilly’s disappearance, Potts has kept a close watch on his pet, especially when outdoors.
“They’re not cuddly pets, but when he wants some attention, he’ll come over. You’ll rub his head, and he’s content for a while,” he said. “If he’s outside, I’m right there with him. I’m very relieved to get him back.”
Turtles are water dwellers, while tortoises live on land
Tortoises have a lengthy lifespan from 50 to 150 years
Hatchlings are typically 3 inches and can grow to 36 inches
Tortoises are herbivores, requiring a high-fiber, low-protein diet