On Sunday 21st November in Scottsdale, Arizona, chaos struck the Fortin household when their pet dog disappeared, much to their dismay.
Michelle Fortin has been folding the laundry when Kenton, her 11-year-old son, ran upstairs to ask her whether or not their dog, Bruce, affectionately named after the civilian alter-ego of Batman, Bruce Wayne, was up there with her.
Bruce is a black 1-year-old French Bulldog and the latest addition to the Fortin family. Alongside Bruce, the Fortins also had a pet Sulcata Tortoise named Bianca, who was also named after a fictional character – the female protagonist in “The Rescuers”, a 1977 Disney motion picture.
The entire family consisting of Michelle, her husband Jason, and their young son, Kenton, and daughter, Camille, began the search for Bruce by initially checking every facet of the house – but to no avail. After the unsuccessful search through the house for Bruce, the family began to panic.
They feared Bruce might have been stolen from their backyard, as has been known to happen with appealing, in demand, pure breed dogs.
They then took to the streets of the neighborhood, within an hour of realizing Bruce was missing, to distribute “Lost Dog” posters as far as possible. They also elected to go door-to-door and speak with their neighbors directly in the hope that one of them might have seen the lost pup walking by their home, or may have taken him in upon finding him. Unfortunately, their search proved frivolous and so they quickly filed a police report.
Having walked the neighborhood with no success, Michelle Fortin decided to begin searching the house again for the small dog in the hopes he may have been hiding away somewhere and failed to respond to their calls.
It was upon searching the backyard again that Fortin noticed she could hear muffled barking coming from somewhere. However, she was unable to figure out exactly where Bruce’s cries were coming from. It was then that she noticed Bianca’s burrow and realized the terrifying truth. He had someone fallen or climbed into the large tortoise’s burrow.
“I approached Bianca’s burrow, and I could hear Bruce barking from under the ground,” Fortin told Washington Post.
The family later discovered that the burrow Bruce had wandered into was much larger than they might have expected, measuring nearly three feet wide and six feet deep. It had also been dug at a 45-degree angle.
Sulcata tortoises, also known as African spurred tortoises, use dens and burrows to escape predators, as well as regulate their body temperature in both hot and cold weather conditions, as the soil acts as a highly effective insulator. Sulcata tortoises are also known to dig dens that can be as deep as 20 feet underground, depending on the weather conditions and environment.
The sound of Bruce barking from within the den had initially been a relief, as at least it proved that he hadn’t been stolen. However, that relief quickly turned to panic as they realized Bruce was trapped behind a 50-pound tortoise that was stubbornly refusing to move.
“I had absolutely no idea how we were going to get him out,” Fortin had said. Bianca weighed roughly twice Bruce’s weight and was currently preventing the small dog from escaping the deep cave.
Fortin was unable to figure out why Bianca showed no interest in leaving her burrow, regardless of the dog trapped behind her. “I couldn’t imagine she wanted to be with him down there,” Fortin said. According to Fortin, the two animals have not been on the best of terms since Bruce’s arrival.
Kenton, Fortin’s son, then attempted to climb down into the burrow to encourage Bianca to move. However, the tortoise was adamant in remaining in place. Alarmingly, Kenton also confirmed that Bruce was completely trapped by Bianca, and Kenton had not been able to get her to move out of the way. It was then that the fortins decided the best thing to do would be to call for help.
Unfortunately, all of the local tortoise rescue organizations were closed and unreachable due to it being a Sunday. Therefore, as a last resort, they turned to the Scottsdale Fire Department for backup.
“I felt ridiculous, but I had no idea what to do or who to call,” Fortin said.
Once she had explained what was happening to the dispatcher, Fortin had been advised that a crew of firefighters would arrive shortly and that her son should remove himself from the burrow for his own safety. A firefighter crew arrived within 10 minutes.
Daniel Espinoza, a fire captain, had arrived on the scene with three fellow firefighters. However, they were all baffled by what was happening and struggled to think of a way to rectify the situation.
“It was one of the most unusual animal rescues I’ve ever been called to,” Espinoza explained.
The four firefighters together tried their best to think of a way to save the dog, however, their inexperience with burrows forced them to conclude that any plan they came up with could risk further injury, or possibly worse, to one or both of the animals.
The pressure was mounting to save the dog as his barking became more and more panicked. “it made the little girl start to cry. That broke my heart,” Espinoza explained.
The firefighting team had considered attempting to dig into the burrow to free Bruce, however, they fears digging could cause the burrow to collapse.
“Even though we didn’t know what we were going to do, we decided weren’t going to leave until we figure it out,” Espinoza continued.
After much deliberation, they decided to contact a wildlife expert for assistance and insight.
The president of the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary, Russ Johnson, received the call asking for urgent assistance.
“I’ve never had a dog go into a tortoise hole and the tortoise block him from getting out.” Said Johson, who has a lot of experience in the first of wildlife. The entire situation had been a first for everyone involved.
Johnson expressed his main concerns about the problem. Bianca is considerably heavier than Bruce, and so there is a possibility that she is compressing the dog inside the burrow. This could ultimately lead to suffocation.
He quickly came up with an approach that could safely remove both animals from the burrow – however, it was not a guarantee. Johnson advised the firefighters to begin digging away the base soil from the entrance of the burrow using a pickaxe and shovels. This would prevent the burrow from collapsing as they dig.
Roughly 40 minutes from the time of the firefighters’ arrival, Bruce – whom it was believed had been trapped behind Bianca for around three hours by this point in time – stopped barking. It was at this point that Fortin and her husband decided it was best for the children to remain inside the house.
Fortin recalled the firefighter captain reassuring her that they would do everything in their power to save Bruce. However, there was a possibility it might not end happily. “Our dog could get buried in front of my kids and scar them for life,” Fortin recalls telling the captain in response.
Fortin had stayed inside to comfort her children. They had been crying and praying for Bruce’s safe return when her husband, Jason, had run into the house telling them to come outside.
The noise and vibration of the digging at the entrance of her burrow had enticed Bianca to come and see what all the fuss was about. This had enabled the firefighters to grab Bianca by her shell and remove her from the burrow, giving Bruce the space he needed to escape – which he did extremely quickly.
Fortin recounted the event on her Instagram account describing how she had felt “mad and sad and happy,” affectionately referring to her puppy as “BRUCE THE IDIOT.”
Everyone celebrated the safe rescue of Bruce with both animals coming out of the ordeal completely unharmed. The firefighters themselves had described the endeavor as both bizarre and highly rewarding.
“We were so relieved,” Espinoza explained. “We hate to disappoint people, especially children.”
Following the rescue of their beloved pup, the Fortins decided to bake homemade cookies for Bruce’s rescuers and delivery them to the station. They also made cookies for their neighbors who had been dedicated to helping the family locate their dog before the rescue.
“We really are so grateful to them. They saved the day,” Fortin said of the firefighters.
Johnson, the wildlife expert, echoed the sentiment put forward by Fortin. “They are the reason the dog is alive. It could have been a horrible situation. The firefighters did a fantastic job.”
Upon exiting the burrow Bruce bounced back to his normal, energetic self after having a big drink of water to sate his thirst. Following the rescue, Fortin decided to hire a dog trainer in order to ensure this problem will never happen again.
As traumatic as the event could have been, all ended well and made for an interesting story and memorable afternoon.“How many people can say that they had to call the fire department to rescue their dog, who was trapped by their tortoise in their backyard?” Fortin said.