The Story of Tommy
On Monday 6th September 1999, the tortoise living at 10
Morrison Avenue was seen at midday going up the garden by it's owner
Mrs. Eve Barker. That was the last time she saw it. The tortoise had
been Mrs. Barker's pet for 40 years, and had been well cared
The tortoise had on previous rare occasions escaped
from its garden, and traveled north through the gardens of numbers
12,14, to 16, where a block wall makes any further travel
impossible. To the south, the solid fence between numbers 6 and 8
Morrison Avenue limits the extent of any escape. Mrs. Barker was not
overly worried by the absence of her tortoise, as it often hid in
the garden, finding cool places to rest.
While in her
garden late Monday afternoon chatting with her neighbor at number 8,
she heard a child shriek, and noted that it came from the garden
On Tuesday, when the tortoise had still not
been found after a thorough searching of her garden, Mrs. Barker
asked her neighbor, Andy over, at number 12, to have a look for it
in his garden. She also contacted the neighbors at number 14, who
had a look in their garden. She didn't know the new arrivals at
number 16. She ascertained from one of the sons who spoke English
that the tortoise had been found in the garden on Monday, and had
frightened the young girl living there. As a consequence, the
tortoise had been removed from the back garden of the house, and put
outside the front. This leads onto pavement and the
The residents of number 16 Morrison Avenue said
the tortoise had been picked up by the neighbors at number 1
Morrison Avenue. Ms VonAhn immediately contacted them.
residents of number 1 informed Ms. VonAhn that they had given the
animal to the RSPCA. They had rung them, and described it as a
terrapin and were advised to put it in water. It was collected on
Monday at approximately 4.00 pm and the inspector who collected it,
a woman, had said that it appeared healthy.
returned home, and made the first of many phone calls to the RSPCA.
She first rang the Edmonton office, who told her to ring **********
. She rang this number, and was told that a terrapin had been
collected from 1 Morrison Avenue, not a tortoise, and was not given
any further help. It is not believed that any details were taken
with regard to the missing tortoise.
Ms. VonAhn tried to
impress upon the staff member that the animal collected had to be
the tortoise belonging to Mrs. Barker, simply because of the
geography of the local houses. The coincidence of a tortoise being
lost at number 10, and a large shelled creature (tortoise or
terrapin) being found at number 16 was too great to be ignored. The
tortoise could not have gone farther than that house, and had been
known to escape to that garden previously.
The RSPCA staff was insistent that it was a terrapin that had
been collected, and questioned whether Mrs. Barker would have been
taking care of it correctly if she had been keeping it as a
tortoise. Ms VonAhn stated that the tortoise had been Mrs. Barker's
pet for 40 years, and so must have been looked after properly. Ms
VonAhn ascertained that the reference number for the animal
collection was 1750, for 6/9/99. With no resolution Ms VonAhn rang
It was either during this phone call or a subsequent
call, that Ms VonAhn gave the phone to Mrs. Barker over the garden
fence to speak to the RSPCA. Again, they re-iterated that it was a
terrapin that had been collected despite Mrs. Barker explaining how
her tortoise came to be lost.
A short while later, Ms
VonAhn rang again, to try to get some information on where the
tortoise/terrapin was being held. explaining again that the creature
had to be Mrs. Barker's tortoise, and that she would be glad to
drive Mrs. Barker to view it. This was refused. Ms VonAhn suggested
that the RSPCA bring the creature around to Mrs. Barker then, and
show her that it was indeed a terrapin and not her tortoise, and for
the neighbors to confirm that the creature produced was indeed the
type of creature given to the RSPCA. This too was refused. The RSPCA
member became quite aggressive, insisting that their inspectors
would indeed know the difference between a terrapin and a tortoise,
and hung up on Ms. VonAhn.
At approximately 11.30 Ms
VonAhn rang again, to make a complaint about the behavior of the
RSPCA staff member who hung up on her and asked to speak to a
manager. There was no one available and was told to put her
complaint in writing. Ms VonAhn was not prepared to do this as it
was felt that time was of the essence in locating the whereabouts of
Mrs. Barker's tortoise, so she insisted on obtaining the number of
the RSPCA headquarters. The staff member she spoke to again did not
wish to give her a telephone number and tried to give her the
address of headquarters. Ms VonAhn insisted on obtaining a telephone
number, and was given the number of 8888888888. She asked for the
name of the person who gave her the telephone number and was told it
was not policy to release names. The staff member gave her ID number
(22#) and informed Ms VonAhn that the person she had been previously
speaking to was the supervisor, but would not divulge her identity
Mrs. Barker, having tried several times to ring the RSPCA. went
to her son, who was successful at getting through. He too, was given
only the curt insistence that the animal that had been collected was
a terrapin, and that the inspectors knew the difference between a
tortoise and a terrapin. Ms VonAhn rang the headquarters just after
noon on Wednesday, and was put in contact with Sarah in the
Enquiries office. Ms. VonAhn explained the situation, the
frustration of not being able to find out where the creature
collected was being held or to arrange for someone to bring the
animal to Mrs. Barker for an identity check. Sarah explained the
RSPCA's concern about false claims being made for animals,
particularly animals shown on TV, but Ms VonAhn said this was
not the case here, and that she was confident that Mrs. Barker would
have photographs of her tortoise and would check with her. Sarah
suggested that she write her complaint, and ms VonAhn asked to be
able to Email it, obtaining the email address of
firstname.lastname@example.org. A copy of her email is attached.
Later on Wednesday afternoon, Ms VonAhn again rang Sarah at HQ to
ensure that she had received the email, and informed Sarah that Mrs.
Barker had found a photograph of her tortoise. Sarah found the Email
and faxed it to the regional office, and Ms VonAhn said she would
try to get the photograph scanned into her computer and send it to
Sarah by Email. She managed to do this later on Wednesday, see copy
of the Email attached.
Mrs. Bond (Mrs. Barker's daughter)
phoned the RSPCA at Leicester at 3.00pm, and was told a note was
left for the inspector to contact her and that it was on the
computer as a terrapin. She rang back at 5.15, and was told that
tracing the tortoise would not be a priority if other urgent matters
such as an animal abuse arose, and that the inspector may take some
time to return the call. She was also given the assurance that
"Nothing was done to animals for seven days"
Ms. VonAhn again visited the neighbors at number 1, and showed
them the photograph of the tortoise, who confirmed that it looked
like the creature handed to the RSPCA. She was also told that it was
the finder of the animal who reported it to the RSPCA. She was also
told that it was the finder of the animal who reported it to the
RSPCA as a terrapin, and who placed it in water before it was
On Wednesday evening, a man from the RSPCA
(believed to be Mr. Norman Booth) rang Ms VonAhn and spoke to her
briefly. He asked if she would be able to bring Mrs. Barker to
identify the carcass. This confused Ms. VonAhn who couldn't
understand why it would be dead. This man said that it was difficult
to identify a large tortoise from a terrapin, and also asked about
Mrs. Barker's age, as he was concerned about upsetting her. Ms
VonAhn went and got Mrs. Barker's phone number while Mr. Booth
waited on the telephone line, so that he could ring her. Mrs. Barker
awaited his call, but he did not phone her that evening.
On Thursday morning, Ms VonAhn rang Sarah again, but was unable to
get any more information, except that she was given the name of
Superintendent Drew. She explained her concern about the animal
having been killed, due to the phone call the previous night, but
was unable to get any further information. Sarah had passed the
emails etc to the Regional Office, and suggested that Ms VonAhn
contact them again. Ms VonAhn reluctantly rang the ******* number
again to try to speak to him, but her was in a meeting. She left a
message, but was not rung back. She rang again about 5.30 on
Thursday, and again left a message.
On Thursday afternoon,
as Mrs. Barker had still not heard from the RSPCA, Mrs. Bond rang
again and was rudely told by the staff member that the situation was
too complex: and she would have to wait for the inspector. Mrs. Bond
was also told that she couldn't have the London headquarters number
as Leicester dealt with problems from the Tottenham area. Mrs. Bond
came off the phone extremely upset at the attitude of the woman from
the RSPCA and the frustration at not being able to get any
information about the tortoise.
Mrs. Bond then rang
the Edmonton Branch, which passed her to Horsham. Mrs. Bond was told
to keep calm, that it will all be sorted, and that an investigation
would take place.
On Friday morning, after waiting since Wednesday evening, Mrs.
Barker was finally rung by a male RSPCA inspector who informed her
that the tortoise had been destroyed. "Bad News, I am afraid" Mrs.
Barker was stunned, and could not understand how this could have
happened. She was passed to the female inspector who had collected
the tortoise. and she explained that she had kept it in a cat basket
in her van, and then having nowhere to put it decided it was better
to kill it as it kept trying to get out. Mrs. Barker did not feel
she had an apology from the woman involved, rather she felt that she
was being blamed by her for not immediately reporting her tortoise
as missing, even though on previous occasions it had been found
hiding under plants.
When Ms VonAhn rang Mrs. Barker at
about 10.00 am on Friday, she heard from Mrs. Barker that the
tortoise had been killed. Ms. VonAhn then rang Sarah at headquarters
to tell her the outcome, Sarah gave her the address to send this
complaint to, and agreed that she would fax over the complaint if
emailed to her.
Shortly afterwards, Mr. Norman Booth
(Chief Inspector for N.E. London) rang Ms VonAhn to say that the
tortoise was dead. He informed her that the inspector has mistakenly
identified the tortoise as a terrapin, and had injected it to kill
it. As the tortoise had been injected it was not classed as toxic
waste and would not be able to be returned to Mrs. Barker. Ms VonAhn
suggested that a photograph of the tortoise might be in order but
this has not been forthcoming. Mr. Booth said that the matter had
been referred to the Superintendent Drew, but as he was away, had
been given to him to deal with.
Ms. VonAhn informed
Mr. Booth of her anger at this horrible action, even if it was a
mistake, and that Mrs. Barker, her family and myself intended to
make a complaint.
On Friday morning, on hearing the news,
Mrs. Bond rang Judy at Horsham, who was extremely sympathetic and
told Mrs. Bond she would pass the information on for the complaint
to be dealt with.
We are horrified that the RSPCA could
make such a basic misidentification of an animal that is protected,
and valuable, resulting in the loss of a pet of more than 40 years.
We would suggest that an evening meeting be arranged at our
convenience to receive an account of the RSPCA's actions, and
specifically the organization's response to the following questions:
1. Why was the animal mistakenly identified as a terrapin
instead of a tortoise? This is such a basic error that we find
it quite incredible that a trained RSPCA inspector could not
tell the difference. What training are RSPCA inspector given
about less common pets?
2. If the inspector did not know
the difference, why did she not refer the identification
to more experienced inspector or another interested
3. Why was one of the exotic inspector's not
4. Did the inspector have no idea of the
existence of the exotic inspector or any of the UK organizations
dedicated to tortoises and terrapins?
5. What attempts,
if any, were made to re-house the presumed-terrapin before it
6. If she had not mistaken it for a terrapin,
what attempts would have been made to re-house a
7. Why were we told to keep calm, and assured
that any animal would be looked after for 7 days? What exactly
is the RSPCA;s policy with regard to healthy animals it
8. Why was this animal destroyed after being
held for 24 hours particularly when they are now quite rare and
stories often appear about their re-homing and thefts?
Why did the inspector take the creature if she knew she would
not be able to find a place to keep it?
10. What is the
RSPCA's view of the rudeness we received from the woman at the
11. We wish to have a complete timetable
of the tortoise's experience in the RSPCA's care. When was it
picked up? How long was it left in the cat basket? Who else, if
anyone, saw the tortoise, and when did they see it? When exactly
was it killed, and with whose authorization, and for what
reason? We also wish to have documentation of the RSPCA's
12. Why was it so difficult to contact
the inspector involved in the tortoise's recovery? In an age of
telephones, we find it quite difficult to understand why we had
to wait until Friday to discover what had happened to the
13. When did the RSPCA become aware of the
appalling error-Wednesday, Thursday, Friday?
changes are the RSPCA going to implement to ensure that such
appalling incompetence and error is not repeated?
What restitution is going to be offered for such incompetence
This story was brought to you by the Tortoise Trust
UK as presented to them by eyewitnesses. Http//www.tortoisetrust.org