CASA GRANDE — Stumpy the tortoise, star of the Casa Grande-based Wildman Phil reptile show, was safely reunited with his owner Thursday, a day after he and several other reptiles were kidnapped in the metro Denver area.
The menagerie and owner, "Wildman" Phil Rakoci, will return soon to Casa Grande.
The three-legged tortoise and 14 of his mostly desert-dwelling pals — including a 13-foot python, rattlesnake, a few Australian lizards, a bearded dragon, two emperor scorpions and a tarantula — were in a Suburban that was stolen on a Wednesday evening from a Wal-Mart parking lot in Englewood, Colo.
The theft was a topic of several Denver TV news broadcasts, as was Thursday morning's recovery of the Suburban by Denver firefighters. The SUV was abandoned, with all the reptiles inside. Police have no leads on who stole the vehicle. It was running with the heater turned on, and the reptiles all appeared in good health.
While Rakoci went inside Wal-Mart, he left the Suburban running because the temperature was in the 40s and he needed the reptiles to remain warm. He locked the doors with a remote key.
"I used my secret button to lock the car, but when I came out of the store, the Suburban was gone," he said.
As he searched the parking lot for his car, his groceries were also stolen.
"This Wal-Mart was in a bad part of town, but I didn't know that," Rakoci said in an interview with the Casa Grande Dispatch.
With his car and critters missing, Rakoci spent a long night fearing for the safety of his animals.
"When I travel with them, I have a heater and a thermometer to make sure they are warm enough," Rakoci said. "My big concern was that the animals might not last through the night."
Area media outlets picked up the story, alerting the public that a vehicle full of reptiles was missing, and Rakoci posted a notice on his Facebook page that said, "Stumpy the Tortoise has been kidnapped in the Denver area."
Just before 9 a.m. on Wednesday, firefighters discovered the vehicle abandoned but running with the heater on. The animals were safe and warm.
"Stumpy was happy to see me," Rakoci said. "He ate a few apples."
Rakoci said he doesn't know what would have happened if the animals had spent the night without heat.
"Chances are some wouldn't have survived," he said. "Temperatures were right on the cusp of being too cold for some of them."
Rakoci keeps the reptiles in gray tubs when he travels and, in an interview with KUSA-TV in Denver, he said the car thief probably didn't know what was in the tubs when the Suburban was stolen.
Stumpy — along with the rest of the Wildman Phil show cast — is popular with area youngsters, who cram into rooms whenever shows are scheduled.
Stumpy has developed a following of his own and has a Facebook page, which 1,079 people have "liked." He also has 186 friends on Myspace. Several videos in which he is the star can be viewed on YouTube.
Stumpy was left in a milk crate on Rakoci's doorstep seven years ago. His left front leg was missing and his right front leg was damaged. Rakoci and Ken Hillery attached a bracket and wheel to the outside of Stumpy's shell so he could maintain his mobility.
Rakoci's show combines hands-on demonstrations and lessons aimed at teaching kids respect for wildlife and the environment and how to differentiate between dangerous and harmless animals.
Stumpy is a favorite with area children who often pet him after shows.
"I'd say he is the star of the show," Rakoci said. "While most tortoises live in a hole in the ground, Stumpy lives in a heated hut."
Although one Denver-area show scheduled for Thursday was canceled, Rakoci plans to complete his tour, heading to Nebraska next.
After the tour ends, Rakoci, Stumpy and the gang will be back in Casa Grande.