RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) – It wasn’t exactly a high-speed chase.

Willy the tortoise made a crawl for freedom last week, getting half a mile from the fenced yard where he lives in a doghouse.

Shelley Larsen figures the 200-pound shellback escaped after her 18-year-old son, Aaron, left a gate open Thursday.

Willy was corralled by a neighbor and Riverside County Department of Animal Services workers drove him to a shelter, with the 11-year-old African tortoise “rocking back and forth” in the truck, department spokesman John Welsh said.

“I don’t think the public realizes how big and how very strong tortoises are,” Welsh said. “The whole shelter was abuzz. Willy is the size of a small bathtub.”

The department posted photos of Willy on its Web site and he was recognized by Shelley Larsen’s 21-year-old daughter, Lisa. Willy was back home after fewer than six hours of freedom.

It was the third time Willy has gotten out since the family bought him at a pet store for $130 for Lisa’s 10th birthday.

At the time, Willy could fit in the palm of a person’s hand.

“We had no idea he’d get so big,” said Shelley Larsen’s husband, Robbie.

Willy is now so strong that he sometimes knocks down tables when he lumbers around their house in Rubidoux. And he can easily give rides to the Larsen family’s nieces and nephews.

Given a tortoise’s long life span, Robbie Larsen expects Willy will someday be giving rides to the sons and daughters of those nieces and nephews.

“That’s our family heirloom,” says Larsen, 40. “He’ll outlive my grandchildren.”

AP-ES-12-08-07 1428EST

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