Wandering tortoise creates special connection between families

This is a tale of a wandering tortoise and three families connected by the animal’s journey.

The Mahaffey Family

We begin with Erin Mahaffey. This mother of five runs a non-profit animal sanctuary out of her home. She takes in animals with fur, feathers, and shells when their previous owners can no longer care for them. Occasionally, there’s an animal like her farm cat Boots who was found under a car hood and found his happily ever after home at the Mahaffey Funny Farm.

On the Mahaffey’s three-acre patch of land, you’ll find bunnies, chickens, pigs, alpacas, goats, turtles and more.
On the Mahaffey’s three-acre patch of land, you’ll find bunnies, chickens, pigs, alpacas, goats, turtles and more. (KPRC 2)

On the Mahaffey’s three-acre patch of land, you’ll find bunnies, chickens, pigs, alpacas, goats, turtles and more. On social media, she shares her animal adventures showing off both her heart and her sense of humor.

“I just enjoy making people smile,” said Mahaffey.

The Williamson Family

Recently in a more traditional suburban neighborhood just a short drive away, another local family spotted an animal in their yard they knew didn’t belong. They weren’t sure how it got there, but they knew just who to call.

They reached out to the Williamsons to ask if a turtle had escaped their yard. Katya and Jason Williamson live next door and as luck would have it, the family raises turtles. When Jason saw a picture of the wayward animal, he knew exactly what it was.

“I recognized it was a Russian tortoise,” said Jason Williamson. “I’ve seen a lot of them over the years.”

His wife Katya replied, “I said we could try to find its owners because it’s not native to Texas.”

That’s when out of the blue, Katya recalled a social media post about a family’s missing pet. She couldn’t remember when she had seen it, so she started searching Facebook. The post about Spike escaping a family’s yard came up right away, even though it was from 2 ½ years ago. Katya reached out to the person who put up the post to ask what kind of tortoise she had lost.

Williamsons' pic of Spike
Williamsons' pic of Spike (The Williamsons)

“She immediately responded that it was a Russian tortoise.”

“He survived this whole time, I think that was my biggest emotion right there, knowing that he made it, that was my biggest fear once he got out,” said Mahaffey.

Before the Mahaffey’s moved to a neighborhood where they could take in animals of all sizes, they lived on another suburban street. It was there that Spike dug out from their yard and somehow over the course of 30 months, they think he got safely from the Mahaffey’s old street to the Williamson’s current street about two miles away.

The Pack Family

“Erin and I both, the very first thing we said is that Marlee, Marlee had a hand in that,” said Shelly Pack.

Shelly Pack’s daughter Marlee loved turtles and tortoises. When Marlee got sick and was granted a wish from the Make-a-Wish Foundation, she considered a trip that would allow her to see her favorite animals.

Marlee, Make-a-Wish
Marlee, Make-a-Wish (Shelly Pack)

“She thought about the Galapagos islands because she loved tortoises and then possibly the San Diego Zoo,” said Pack. “She actually chose to give Build-a-Bears to other kids in the hospital that were fighting cancer.”

As much as she loved turtles, what Marlee wanted more was to bring smiles to other people, particularly children facing her same cancer battle. As sick as she was, Marlee was always smiling.

“Everybody that saw Marlee said something about her smile,” said Pack.

Marlee was just 12-years-old when she passed away. A foundation called Marlee’s Smile was created in her honor to continue spreading Build-a-Bears to children in the hospital and to raise money for pediatric cancer research.

Her parents now live in Colorado, but before she passed away, they lived right down the road from the Williamsons, although they didn’t know each other at the time.

The Wandering Tortoise

“She placed him (Spike) there for a reason,” said Pack.

“The coincidence of it all is just remarkable,” said Katya Williamson.

“We drove almost past her house to go pick up our Spike,” said Mahaffey.

While age and elements can wear on an animal and Russian tortoises often look alike, these families say Spike is finally home with the Mahaffeys and their other Russian tortoise Harold.

The Connection

In a home video, Marlee looks through the glass of a tank with a tortoise on the other side. She smiles while talking to her pet, “Hi Harold, I love you too.”

“She got Harold and only probably had him about 3 months before she relapsed. And that’s what connected us with Erin,” said Shelly Pack. “Erin gave Harold a really good home and Marlee was very happy with that decision.”

Marlee and Harold
Marlee and Harold (Shelly Pack)

The Mahaffeys planned to return Harold once Marlee got well, but that day never came.

“He is one of our beloved tortoises who will stay at the animal sanctuary, will not be up for adoption, he will stay here forever,” said Mahaffey.

“Harold was that connecting piece,” smiles Pack.

At the Mahaffey Funny Farm, Mahaffey grins when noticing Harold and Spike are in the same shelter.

“Here is Spike and Harold together,” said Mahaffey. “Here is Harold. He’s a little bit smaller and a little bit lighter. Here is Spike. His shell got a little bit of damage, but he was gone for 2.5 years.”

Much like Marlee would have wanted, having Spike back home is keeping Erin smiling.

“It’s been so long and he made it and he’s home.”