100-pound tortoise wanders Portsmouth streets, earns nickname "Mario Andretti"

When Sampson made his escape Sunday evening, it was the first time some of his neighbors had ever laid eyes on a creature so strange.

They first caught him lumbering down Deep Creek Boulevard, then along the picket fences and lush yards lining Barclay Avenue. At one point, he got stuck in a backyard where he spun in circles and wriggled his way out under a fence.

“I ain’t ever seen a turtle so big,” Randy Speller said. “I mean, this thing was huge.”

He was returned Monday to his owner, who has cared for Sampson for more than two decades and will likely be outlived by the pet. Animal Control workers declined to identify the owner.

Portsmouth Animal Control Officer Brenda Quintana helped keep an eye on “Mario Andretti,” the tortoise found wandering the streets of Portsmouth on Sunday, June 11, 2017. Courtesy of Portsmouth Animal Control

Before authorities arrived, dozens of neighbors gathered along Barclay to marvel at the reptile. They offered him cabbage heads and splashed him with water as temperatures hovered around 90 degrees.

“The citizens had such a good time caring after him,” said Animal Control Officer Brenda Quintana. “It was truly a treat.”

Sampson was likely nervous about all the attention, Quintana said, and he scurried away from his fans as they waited for the officers to corral him.

But for a few brief hours, neighbors delighted in Sampson’s surprise outing. Several said Tuesday that they had no idea he lived in the area.

Quintana said the owner purchased Sampson when he was a baby, adding that owning the animal is legal. Sampson was likely much smaller at the time – baby sulcata tortoises can be tiny enough to fit inside the rim of a shot glass.

Employees had planned to send him to a tortoise habitat when they found his owner and took him home.

“That was one of the more unusual ones we’ve found,” said McLaughlin. “It was a little break from the norm.”