Lenard Hughes has a small statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, watching over his small menagerie in the home he shares with his wife Roseanne in The Acreage.
It may have been St. Francis or some other divine intervention that saved Hughes’ tortoise, George, after the creature was run over by a small car not half a mile from Hughes’ home last month.
Now, George is recovering — with the help of a high-profile veterinarian who has her own TV show, the South Florida Science Center and a 3-D printed prosthetic shell.
Hughes hopes people will learn from George’s story: If you hit an animal, stop and do what you can to help it. “This woman never stopped,” he said. “Thank God my neighbor was there.”
‘I’ve got your animal, but he’s badly hurt’
A large, wrought-iron fence surrounds Hughes’ home off Temple Boulevard. He keeps a variety of animals, from native species, to rare, to poisonous snakes. He grew up in Miami and was raised around reptiles, he said, a passion that now consumes his retirement from his work as a pediatric surgeon.
“I had my first snake when I was 6 months old,” Hughes said.
Hughes has had George, a 4-year-old sulcata tortoise, since the reptile was “about as big as a 50-cent piece,” he said.
But one of the gates protecting Hughes’ home was damaged during Hurricane Irma, and in the days after the storm George saw the opening — and took it.
“I looked for him for two days, up and down, in the woods. Everywhere,” Hughes said. He posted flyers around his neighborhood and in a Facebook group, Loxahatchee Lost and Found Pets.
On Sept. 18, Hughes was in his house when he heard a car horn blaring in his driveway. He walked outside to see his neighbor frantically running up to his house.
“He said, ‘I’ve got your animal, but he’s badly hurt,’” Hughes recalled.
The neighbor had seen the tortoise walking down Temple Boulevard near Hughes’ house. Recognizing George from Hughes’ posters, he pulled over to pick up the moseying creature. But before he could reach George, a woman in a small black or dark blue car drove right over the reptile — leaving George with severe, traumatic injuries.
“George was on the way home, and the woman ran over him and she kept going,” Hughes said. The injuries were unlike anything Hughes had ever seen — and, he soon would find out, unlike anything experienced veterinarians in the area had ever seen.
“I don’t know if her tire actually rolled over him or the bottom of her car sheared it,” Hughes said of George’s shell, from which large sections were broken away. George’s lungs were visible, and Hughes said he could see some bubbles coming from one, indicating a puncture of some kind.
“When I saw him it made me feel kind of sick,” Hughes said. But his medical training kicked into gear, and he cleaned and dressed George’s wounds, then began his search for a vet to care for the tortoise.
‘Dr. K’s Exotic Animal ER’
After several hours and countless phone calls, he found Dr. Susan Kelleher’s Deerfield Beach practice, Broward Avian and Exotics Animal Hospital. Kelleher is one of the foremost exotic animal veterinarians in South Florida.
She also has a TV show on Nat Geo Wild: “Dr. K’s Exotic Animal ER.” Kelleher told him to bring George to her office right away. She assessed the damage and told Hughes she would operate on George, if he made it through the night.
“I was thankful that I got to somebody who was comfortable with that level of trauma,” he said.
During the Sept. 19 surgery, Kelleher removed several shell fragments and repaired a small tear in one of the tortoise’s lungs. “He’s lost huge segments of his shell, though. There’s some big holes there,” Hughes said.
Those holes pose a problem: For George to survive, his internal organs need protection. That’s where the South Florida Science Center came in.
Kelleher reached out to the West Palm Beach facility, which has a 3-D printer, and asked: Could they make a new shell for George? And they agreed to do it for free. The turnaround was quick, with the first version of George’s shell off the printer and onto his back last week.
With black duct tape covering the prosthetic shell — it will need to be removable so it can be replaced every three years as George continues to grow — the tortoise moved around Hughes’ “reptile room” in The Acreage on Friday. Hughes said George has plenty of healing to do and isn’t completely out of the woods yet, but he’s hopeful George will make a full recovery.
“We’re kind of in an experimental stage with this,” Hughes said.
Hee understands there are times when hitting an animal might be unavoidable. But in those cases: “They need to stop,” he said.
“Did she ever look back?” he added. “I don’t know.”
Also known as the African spurred tortoise. It is native to the southern edge of the Sahara desert in Africa. It is the largest mainland species of tortoise. Adults can reach almost three feet in length (33 inches) and 230 pounds. Their lifespan is about 50-150 years. Sulcata is from the Latin word sulcus, which means “furrow,” referring to the furrows on the tortoise’s scales.