Pet desert tortoise goes missing for days in Christian County, miraculously found on Easter Sunday

CHESTNUTRIDGE, Mo. – Some residents in the Saddlebrooke and Branson area were on high alert recently during a search-and-rescue mission for a rather large desert tortoise. 

Chaz Koeppen, owner of Cafe B-29 in Ozark, says Tuesday, April 4 was a warm spring day with temperatures soaring into the 80s, so she took her female desert tortoise “Baby” outside to her enclosure for fresh air. Koeppen says she drove to Ozark at 11 a.m. to work at the cafe and left Baby in her safely enclosed pen back home.

After returning at 5 p.m., Koeppen came to the nightmarish realization that her precious Baby was missing and may have been stolen – if someone had somehow bypassed the home security camera system. After a closer look, Baby’s owner came to the conclusion that the 40-pound Sulcata tortoise had escaped her enclosure once the barometric pressure dropped in the atmosphere due to incoming storms. Koeppen says Baby had gotten vertical and grabbed the edge of a wood section to pull herself out.

When the storm finally made its way across Chestnutridge, Koeppen says all she could think about was the fact that a Sulcata tortoise might not survive the temperatures of a cold Missouri spring storm. She says she knew it would take a miracle to bring Baby home safely.

Koeppen rushed to social media and began uploading “missing” posters, videos and an offer for a whopping $300 reward for Baby’s return. The cafe owner says she also reached out to the popular Leigh’s Lost and Found community, a group which helps citizens locate lost pets across the region.

“A lot of people locally follow me,” Koeppen told The Heartlander. “I thought, if I can just put the word out. If I can’t find her and she wanders down a ridge or someone finds her, they’re gonna know she’s not a normal tortoise. The more people that know she is out there, the greater her chances of coming home if someone finds her, but it is rough terrain.

“It’s not made for her to be in these valleys.”

Chestnutridge sits in the heart of the Ozark Mountain range and features steep, jagged terrain. The area is also home to the National Tiger Sanctuary, wineries and other bustling businesses. The road is also frequented by motorcyclists. Chaz put warning signs up to let motorcycle riders and drivers know there was a possibility of her tortoise finding the road, posing a very large, slow-moving hazard.

Koeppen’s cafe soon received a phone call from Kim Wise of Branson, a professional animal tracker and owner of Play With Your Dog DOG PARK. Wise showed up at the Koeppen residence on Day 1 and searched for five hours. 

“She came to my house and was the most incredible, nicest person, and was like, ‘Let’s do this. We won’t take no for an answer; let’s find Baby.’”

Wise suggested heading north first, as animals generally migrate north looking for water when lost.

In the meantime, Koeppen’s mother reached out to experts at the local Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield for ideas and information about the Sulcata tortoise. Mike Crocker responded, volunteering his time to search for Baby and giving lots of suggestions. Crocker also knew a few local veterinarians who were familiar with the Sulcata, its body structure and habits.

After several storms had passed through the area, by Good Friday, April 7, Koeppen says she was beginning to feel a little hopeless for her spiny-shelled family member, but kept searching with Wise and other volunteers from the community. 

It was Easter Sunday, and Koeppen was preparing to have lunch with her parents and fiancé after another strenuous, bug-spray-soaked search. As the tortoise owner hopped into the shower, her fiancé heard someone hollering. As the duo listened closely, they realized Wise had found Baby and was celebrating. 

Baby had come out to sunbathe in the grass next to an area of old billboard signs that had been searched several times previously. Baby had burrowed into the ground under the signs just 100 feet from her enclosure.

Experts believe she stayed put during the entire time she was missing. Once the tortoise urinated after her arrival back home, Koeppen suddenly realized Baby had survived the entire escapade by drinking rusty water that had drained off the signs. 

Koeppen immediately showered Baby in warm water as instructed and tried feeding her, but Baby apparently had enough excitement and was not budging. Her owner immediately transported Baby to a local veterinarian who knows her species well. After a quick check, Baby was found to be merely dehydrated – an easy fix – and miraculously had no other injuries or issues. 

The cafe owner says she took Wise out to eat after finding Baby and offered her the reward, which Wise politely and generously declined, so Koeppen donated the $300 to Wise’s dog park. 

Now that Baby is home, Koeppen has a message for all who helped to try to locate her Sulcata.

“It truly shows me what a remarkable community we have – that they would recognize the special needs of a Sulcata and know time was not on her side. They offered their time and shared the post. It was unbelievable that so many people reached out and helped.

“Now it gives me the opportunity for her to live to 150, and I can pass her down to my children. I was afraid that was all over, but ended up having the best Easter ever. She is home and doing great.”

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