Nicholas Barajas never expected police work to lead him toward rescuing a 150-pound runaway tortoise. A few weeks ago, that’s precisely what happened.
An officer with the Midlothian Police Department since Dec. 2016, Barajas was on his regular patrol one day, watching over the kids during recess at J.R. Irvin Elementary.
That was when he noticed an older man walked up to the kids and started talking to them out of nowhere.
“I just wanted to make sure everything was okay,” Barajas recalled. “I got out, and I was like ‘Hey man, what’re you doing talking to these kids?’ He said ‘Man, you’re never going to believe this: I’m looking for my turtle.”
At first, Barajas said he thought the man was pulling his leg. But the more he listened, the more he realized how concerned the man was for his pet tortoise.
“He had already willed that thing to his godchildren,” Barajas explained. “When I first saw him, and I was talking to him, you could hear it in his voice. It was almost like, you gotta find your kid.”
The tortoise’s owner, Jamie Hart, said the tortise pushed her way through a chain-link gate at his house when she started her trek around the neighborhood. Hart explained that a few of the school kids identified the tortoise, Ruby, and Hart was attempting to track her down.
Barajas said he sympathized with Hart and told him he would help him find Ruby.
“I’m an animal person,” Barajas explained. “I don’t care if it’s a dog, a cat, or a turtle.”
As they started to look for Ruby, Hart warned Barajas of how heavy Ruby was at 150 pounds.
He also cautioned him at how fast she was as well.
“I thought he was just yanking my leg when he told me this thing was fast,” Barajas said. “This thing was only out for probably 10 minutes, and this thing was probably a good 90 yards from his house.”
Eventually, they heard Ruby loudly rummaging through the woods nearby. Barajas said he could see Ruby 30 yards deep into the woods running through the brush.
“You could hear it,” Barajas said. “It was a huge turtle. That thing was hiking its way deeper into the woods.”
Since Ruby was too heavy for Hart to lift, he asked Barajas if he would help in raising her. Barajas complied, but upon his first effort, he was surprised at how heavy Ruby was.
“It was almost dead weight,” he said. “I could probably walk with it for about eight to 10 yards at a time, then set it down and hold on to it. Because once you set it down, it’s trying to go somewhere else.”
Barajas said he learned that lesson — quickly — the first time he sat Ruby down.
“Once I got it up on the concrete, that thing just took off,” he recalled. “It stepped on my foot through my boot. It really hurt.”
From there, Barajas and Hart put Ruby on a cart and rolled it back to Hart’s house in 30-45 minutes.
“They had rebar set up all around the chain link fence except for the gate,” Barajas said. “That’s where it pushed through.”
Barajas said when they got back and put Ruby in his backyard, Hart was elated at Ruby’s return.
“He was just overly thankful that we got his turtle-kid back to him,” Barajas said. “He was a good guy. I know we have one happy citizen in the city for sure.”
Since then, Barajas has gained something of a reputation back at the police department. Barajas said many of his peers now call him “the turtle whisperer” after his turtle rescue.
“Within the police world, things stick with you,” he said. “Sometimes it can be bad, and sometimes it can be good. I’m kind of wearing this like a badge of honor, you know? ‘Turtle Whisperer.’”
David Dunn, @DavidDunnInTX