Beloved tortoise dies in Central Oregon

BEND, Ore. — A desert tortoise with an unverifiable claim to being Bend’s oldest resident died Wednesday.

Sam, owned by defense attorney Angela Lee, was estimated to be somewhere between 110 and 125 years old during a visit to the veterinarian in 2007.

Friday, Lee, 46, said she’d always assumed her tortoise would outlive her, and said it could take awhile for her to adjust to life after Sam.

“Yesterday was the first day of my life without my pet,” she told The Bulletin. “I’ve sort of come to terms with, ‘Sam’s gone, nothing lives forever,’ but in my mind, Sam will always be with me.”

Sam — known as Samantha until Lee saw a documentary on tortoises in 2002 and determined “she” was in fact a “he” — came in to Lee’s parents’ lives in 1966, two years before Lee was born. Lee’s father, Walter, was stationed in 29 Palms, Calif., with the Marine Corps, and as a joke some neighbors picked up a tortoise they found crossing the road and delivered it to Billie Lee, Angela Lee’s mother.

As the story was relayed to Lee, the neighbors who brought Sam to the Lee house were really just looking to get a rise out of her mother. To everyone’s surprise, Billie Lee decided to keep the tortoise. Multiple photos of Billie Lee while pregnant with Lee feature Sam as well, she said, feasting on lettuce, tomatoes, watermelon and dandelions.

Lee’s family’s schedule eventually came to revolve around Sam’s habits, Lee said.

From October through February, he would hibernate in the back yard, she said, then announce he was ready for his first post-hibernation meal by knocking his shell against the sliding glass door.

Kids from Lee’s neighborhood were fond of Sam and learned his patterns as well, she said, often dropping by to visit and feed him dandelions.

“I very distinctly remember taking Sam to my kindergarten class for show and tell — that was a very long time ago — but whenever it was ‘bring something interesting in,’ it was like, ‘I’ve got Sam, I’m good,’” she said.

Years later, after moving to Bend, Lee offered to let a friend’s daughter take Sam to school for show and tell. The large group of children seemed to make Sam uneasy, she said, but they came across a large patch of dandelions in a courtyard. When the kids started collecting the flowers and bringing them to him, “Sam just came to life,” Lee said.

Lee said she was “crying like a baby” over Sam’s death on Thursday. Her 81-year-old father sat down next to her on her bed, rubbed her back, and tried to comfort her.

“He said, ‘I’ll get you another one, honey; we’ll go tomorrow,’” she said. “Like I was 6 years old.”

Lee said Sam had learned to distinguish between different people’s voices, and would often hide in his shell unless he heard the sound of a trusted family member or friend. He loved getting his neck rubbed, having lotion massaged into his back legs, and from time to time, enjoyed Italian dressing on the salads Lee and her mother prepared for him.

“Sam was very, very spoiled, and I’m glad — that’s how it should be,” Lee said. “He really lived a wonderful life and he gave us so much. He deserved some rest, despite the fact that for many months every year, that’s all he did.”

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