07/13/2010 at 02:55 PM EDT
An African spur thigh tortoise is no match for the New Hampshire winter – layers of snow, frost and temperatures dipping well below freezing. So when Christine and Mike Wellington's 25-lb. tortoise, Lucy, disappeared four years ago and didn't show by Christmas, they assumed the worst.
"We were just crushed," Christine Wellington tells PEOPLEPets.com. "We looked everywhere, and my thought at the time was she's going to die – there's just no ways she's going to make it out there."
Lucky for the Wellington family, they assumed wrong.
On July 9, they received a phone call from a neighbor that their tortoise had gotten out – the Wellington family owns another tortoise, Linus – about a quarter of a mile from their house. When they realized Linus was safe at home, their thoughts went to Lucy, their people-loving tortoise who escaped her enclosure four years ago.
"We were shocked – absolutely shocked," Wellington says. "It's just been a happy, happy story."
Reunited with their pet, Wellington says that although there is no surefire way to guarantee that it is indeed Lucy, the odds of a tortoise showing up in their hometown of Brentwood, N.H., is slim. Lucy's breed has very specific climate demands – namely a warm, dry environment – which is part of the miracle behind her return.
Wellington, whose home is in a wooded-area, has two theories: Lucy may have tunneled her way out of her enclosure and then below the frost line, staying low throughout the winter. The only other way she thinks she could have survived was if someone found her and gave her a temporary home.
Susan Tellem, the executive director of American Tortoise Rescue
, agrees with Wellington. "Tortoises are opportunistic, and [Lucy] likely dug a burrow way underground and stayed there," she says. "It's also likely that if [Lucy] escaped once, she could escape a second time, and my hunch is that [she] was taken in by somebody and spent time with a new owner."
And while her whereabouts during her escape act may remain a mystery, the Wellington family – including Mike and Christine's three children Luke, 16, Hannah, 14, and Emma, 10 – are just happy to welcome Lucy home. The tortoise, who Wellington estimates is about 15 years old, has more than doubled in size since her disappearance, weighing in at 60 lbs.
Back home at last, Lucy is grazing on hay and green beans. She keeps her distance from fellow shell-dweller Linus (tortoises are territorial creatures). And although Wellington is not sure whether Lucy remembers her, the tortoise is still a part of her family.
"Our kids grew up with these crazy tortoises – I would equate it with a dog," Wellington says. "[Lucy's] always been in the family." See more happy reunions on PEOPLEPets.com:'Hallo' Again, Max! Cat Reunited with Family that Moved to GermanyHappy Reunion! Missing Pug Back Home After Four Years