Turtle returns home after three years in a lake

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Ula peal oldud aastatega on kilpkonn omaniku hinnangul jõudsalt kasvanud.

PHOTO: HEGE-LEE PAISTE

Turtle Fernando, who slipped away from his owner into Viljandi Lake three years ago, was found last Thursday at 5 a.m. by a fisherman. Fernando was returned to his owner the next morning.

The 30-centimeter Cumberland slider Fernando disappeared into the lake on July 3, 2015, after owner Reimo Rääts decided to take his pet with him to the lake. The idea was to show the exotic animal the Estonian summer.

Fernando got covered in sand at the beach, and Rääts decided to rinse the animal off before heading home. As soon as the turtle’s nose touched the water, the animal made a few sudden movements and slipped away into the lake.

Reimo’s trips to try and find the turtle were always unsuccessful. Until a week ago, an early fisherman found the animal walking on the beach just 300 meters from where he had disappeared. The man picked up the animal, and, with the help of Facebook, Fernando was back in his aquarium by the following morning.

Rääts said that the question he hears most often is: “How can you be sure it’s really Fernando?” The turtle’s owner said that Fernando has a pattern on its underside that can be used to identify him. Rääts also claims to know Fernando from his behavior. “I even got another turtle whom I did not like one bit. No comparison to Fernando,” the man said. “Fernando is very calm, and three years of freedom haven’t changed him.”

The pet owner said he was always convinced Fernando was in the lake. He was also sure the animal would have no trouble – Cumberland sliders are very strong swimmers.

“I went to look for him in springtime, because turtles tend to come up for sun when the weather is good,” he recalled. However, Rääts had no luck and was beginning to lose hope of every seeing the turtle again. “I was greatly surprised to learn that the turtle that had been found could be my Fernando.”

The owner said that Fernando is completely healthy and has grown over the years. “I believe Fernando would like to return to the wild,” Rääts said. And indeed, the turtle made determined efforts to head for the water during his session with the photographer of local paper Lääne Elu. Rääts said he feels bad for keeping Fernando half-captive in an aquarium as he seemed to enjoy Lake Viljandi.

However, Rääts is not thinking about setting the animal loose. “Fernando has had such a great journey that has led him back to me – him living with me was meant to be.” Rääts now plans to build Fernando a bigger aquarium in his backyard where the animal could swim and take cover from the sun or soak in it on some rocks instead.

Docent of vertebrate zoology at the University of Tartu Harri Valdmann said that the only way a turtle can survive the Estonian winter is if they entrench themselves in mud and hibernate there. “Turtles have cutaneous respiration; their skin has formations blood vessels in which allow them to extract oxygen from water just like fish do with the help of gills. This ability to breathe through the skin helps compensate for shortage of oxygen; it is the only way they can survive,” Valdmann said. Estonia has no native turtle population. “Estonia used to be home to the European pond turtle that is still found in other Baltic states but does not have a steady population in the region,” Valdmann said.

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