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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Tortoises home for Christmas

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

With Christmas drawing near, the grinch who stole the zoo's star tortoises must have grown a conscience.

Honolulu Zoo animal keeper Dwain Uyeda holds one of the three star tortoises that had been stolen from the zoo and returned yesterday in a paper bag left at Central Union Church. The animals are valued by collectors and were feared lost.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Why else would the three reptiles turn up, safe but dirty, inside a shopping bag outside Central Union Church yesterday?

A custodian found the trio tucked into a happy-meal- like box inside two brown paper shopping bags outside the church at about 9 a.m.

He brought the tortoises, stolen Nov. 29 from the children's area of the Honolulu Zoo, to church receptionist Michele Beloungie, who called the Honolulu Zoo. The zoo investigator who examined the animals quickly identified them as the stolen star tortoises.

"Someone who had some better thoughts about what they did left them on the doorstep," said zoo director Ken Redman.

Beloungie said that when the custodian first found the bag, there was some concern it was a bomb. After opening the bag and discovering the tortoises, church employees immediately assumed they had been left by one of the preschool students.

"Then someone said, 'Maybe it's one of the star tortoises taken from the zoo'," Beloungie said.

Redman said the tortoises, each 3 to 4 inches long, would be quarantined for 30 days because they were taken outside the zoo's protective perimeter. He said they appeared to be in good health but were a little dirty.

Before the miraculous bout of goodwill, zoo officials had feared the worst.

With a wave of illegal animal smuggling sweeping through Southeast Asia, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials in Hawai'i thought the tortoises had been smuggled out of the state and perhaps the country.

The animals are coveted by collectors and could have ended up as an ornament or a meal.

Star tortoises, also known as Asian Star Tortoises, are found throughout Asia, mainly in brush wood, sand dunes, or scrubland.

Valued at $300 to $600 each, the tortoises were hatched at the zoo in May. The species, which has not been bred by the zoo since the 1960s, can live to be 100 years old.

Reach Peter Boylan at 535-8110 or pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.