Arizona firefighters launch tense rescue after pet tortoise traps pet dog in underground burrow
It was a relatively peaceful Sunday morning at the Fortin household in Scottsdale, Ariz. Around noon, though, chaos struck.
Michelle Fortin was folding laundry, when her 10-year-old son, Kenton, sprinted up the stairs and hollered: "Is Bruce up there?"
Bruce is the Fortin family's beloved 1-year-old French bulldog, named after Bruce Wayne from "Batman." They also have a 15-year-old sulcata tortoise named Bianca - after the female protagonist in the 1977 Disney film "The Rescuers."
Fortin, her husband, Jason, and their two children started searching around the house for Bruce, but he was nowhere to be found. Before long, the family of four began to panic.
They assumed the worst: "We worried that maybe he was stolen from our backyard," Fortin said.
The Fortins mobilized. Within an hour of Bruce's disappearance on Nov. 21, they started scattering "lost dog" posters around their neighborhood and went door-to-door, hoping maybe he wandered to a nearby home. They also filed a police report.
After searching with no luck, Fortin decided to do a second scan of the house. When she got to the backyard, she heard a muffled barking sound, but couldn't pinpoint where it was coming from. Then her eyes peered over to Bianca's burrow.
"I approached the tortoise burrow, and I could hear Bruce barking from under the ground," Fortin said.
Indeed, the dog had wandered into the tortoise burrow, which the family later learned is about six feet deep and nearly three feet wide - and it's on a 45-degree angle.
Tortoises dig burrows to regulate their body temperature and escape predators. Sulcata tortoises, also called African spurred tortoises, tend to dig extensive dens, which can run as deep as 20 feet underground.
Hearing Bruce's bark spurred simultaneous relief and terror.
"I had absolutely no idea how we were going to get him out," Fortin said, adding that they feared Bianca - who weighs 50 pounds, about double Bruce's weight - was blocking Bruce from exiting the deep, dark cave.
"I didn't know why the tortoise wasn't coming out, because I couldn't imagine she wanted to be with him down there," Fortin said, explaining that the two animals aren't exactly the best of friends.
The situation escalated when their son Kenton attempted to descend into the burrow, and he confirmed that the dog was, in fact, trapped by the tortoise. The family decided to call for back up.
They started by reaching out to a local tortoise rescue organization, which was closed, as it was a Sunday. Their next call was to the Scottsdale Fire Department.
"I felt ridiculous, but I had no idea what to do or who to call," Fortin said.
When she explained the somewhat-comical crisis to the dispatcher, she was urgently advised to remove her son from the burrow immediately. A crew of firefighters arrived at the scene within 10 minutes of the call.
Daniel Espinoza, a fire captain, showed up with three other firefighters - all of whom were baffled by the situation.
"When I read the dispatch, I couldn't believe it," Espinoza said. "It was one of the most unusual animal rescues I've ever been called to."
The four firefighters attempted to hatch a plan, but to no avail. Given that they were unfamiliar with burrows - and had never encountered a situation in which a small dog was trapped by a massive tortoise - they were at a loss.
Plus, the pressure was on: "You could hear the panic in the dog's bark, and it made the little girl start to cry," Espinoza said, referring to the Fortin's 9-year-old daughter, Camille. "That broke our hearts."
"Even though we didn't know what we were going to do, we decided we're not going to leave until we figure it out," he continued.
They considered digging into the burrow, but they feared it might collapse, which would have had dire consequences for both animals. They decided to contact a wildlife expert for further insight.
Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary, received the urgent call for help.
Johnson has seen a lot in his career, he said, but "I've never had a dog go into a tortoise hole and the tortoise block him from getting out."
He added that Bruce might not be the brightest pup out there: "We're not going to put him in the top 10 of the obedience class."
Everyone involved in sorting out the incident was breaking new ground, literally.
Johnson's biggest concern, he said, was that the tortoise was compressed against the dog, and might ultimately suffocate him. Still, he had a keen sense of what to do to save both animals before it was too late.
He advised the firefighters to dig delicately, using shovels and a pickax, to keep the structural components of the tunnel intact, starting at the entrance of the burrow.