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Published December 14 2011

Pet tortoise, nearly a century old, survives massive garage fire

LIVERMORE, Calif. — The fire in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Livermore destroyed the garage, collapsing its roof and reducing large garbage bins to plastic pancakes. Combing through the wreckage, firefighters came across the shell of a tortoise and were sure it was dead.

Then Pokey stuck his leg out.

“We were starting to look for the source of how the fire started,” said Battalion Chief Jeff Peters. “We really didn't expect to find a live tortoise.”

Pokey, a Mojave Desert tortoise, is probably about 90 years old, but no one really knows his age, said Fred Frink, who owns the tortoise and the burned home.

“I've owned him since 1962, and he wasn't young then,” Frink said.

Frink lived in Hayward, Calif., when Pokey came into his life. One day a group of neighborhood children showed up at his door with the tortoise, saying they could not find who owned it. Frink took him in, and has had him since.

Normally, Pokey hibernates from the first week of November through the last week of March. The rest of the year, he roams part of Frink's backyard, eating clover, and occasionally rosebuds, grape leaves and grapes.

After firefighters pulled Pokey from the rubble, he was taken to an emergency veterinarian, where a tiny oxygen mask was placed over his face, Frink said.

The Dec. 3 fire started in the garage, where Pokey was in a tissue box hibernating, Peters said.

“It was a very hot garage fire,” Peters said. A few firefighters went to a hospital after a bleach bottle in the garage exploded. Others suffered minor burns.

When the fire broke out, Frink rushed back into the house to get his dog and a large cat. Neighbors saw two other cats escape out a door, though one, a 6-month-old kitten with gray and white stripes, has not reappeared.

But Frink did not hold out hope for Pokey, who was in the middle of the fire. When firefighters approached holding the shell, Frink thought sure Pokey was dead. But aside from a few singes on his shell and legs, the old reptile escaped unscathed.

Tortoises can survive all sorts of harsh conditions, especially when they are hibernating, said Ginger Wilfong of Bay Area Turtle and Tortoise Rescue. One tortoise in her care survived the Oakland hills fire of 1991.

Mojave Desert tortoises are listed as a threatened species. It is illegal to take one from the wild, but it is legal to have them, Wilfong said. And they were easy to come by in the early 1960s, when Frink got his, she said.

“Woolworths’ (drugstore) was selling them for $1.98 a piece,” Wilfong said.

Pokey is awake now — the first time he has ever been awake in December, Frink said.

“He's just very happy to be here,” he said.