Thanksgiving wasn't supposed to be a religious holiday. But for Modesto resident Jack Benenati and his pet tortoises, the day brought miracles.
While most people feasted on turkey, Benenati and his wife, Anna, searched frantically for someone anyone to save their tortoises, which had been burned in a devastating fire the night before.
He found the answer to his prayers at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine's teaching hospital. Now he credits the school's team of vets and residents with saving the lives of many of his tortoises, some of which he's raised from the time they were hatchlings the size of pingpong balls. Today, the biggest are gentle giants 180 pounds, 2 feet wide built like dump trucks on turkey-drumstick-sized legs.
The harrowing event unfolded the night before Thanksgiving. Benenati had gone to bed early while his wife watched TV on the couch with the family dachshunds.
About 9:30 p.m., the dogs started "going ballistic," as Benenati described it, barking at some unseen menace. Benenati realized a massive fire was burning in the tortoises' greenhouse when the heat cracked his bathroom window.
Barefoot, in underwear and a T-shirt, he raced outside. He found a wall of orange heat blasting at him like a furnace. He couldn't see the tortoises, but he grabbed a garden hose and aimed it in their direction.
The cold-blooded tortoises keep warm by sleeping on the floor, which is heated with lamps. Benenati said fire officials believe the fire started in a light fixture. The fire could have been smoldering for hours before flames engulfed the greenhouse.
By the time Benenati got there, the fiberglass building was collapsing. He could hear the melting walls dropping onto the tortoises' shells, landing with a hiss.
Neighbors aimed hoses over the fence; firefighters arrived a few minutes later.
"When the smoke started clearing, all I could see were humps of black charcoal laying there," Benenati said.
Firefighters, Benenati and his wife grabbed the creatures and moved them to safety. They doused them with cool water, then laid them in the garage to assess the damage.
It didn't look good.
The 12 tortoises that sleep in the greenhouse were still alive, but many were severely burned. Coated in soot, their skin was charred and oozing. Benenati could tell they were in pain by their moaning. Benenati started calling vets, but it was 1:30 a.m. He couldn't reach anyone.
At 6 on Thanksgiving morning, he started his search again. At vet after vet, he struck out. Either no one was on duty because of the holiday, or no one was qualified to treat tortoises, an exotic species.
$1,200 a tortoise
He reached the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine's Companion Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine Service. The resident on duty told him it would cost about $1,200 per tortoise for treatment. Benenati, a 53-year-old retired Raley's grocery clerk, said he couldn't afford that. He hung up with a heavy heart, thinking he had struck out again.
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He and his wife went out to the garage to check on their pets.
"We were both kind of bawling, 'cause they're like our kids to us," Benenati said.
As they watched, they saw one of the biggest male tortoises stir. He's a 160-pounder the Benenatis call The Boss because he herds the other tortoises into the greenhouse every night. His front limbs were too burned for him to use; he couldn't see because his eyelids were charred. Using only his back limbs, he scooted himself over to his mate, a 17-year-old female the Benenatis called Big Mama. She was dying, and it seemed as if he wanted to say goodbye to her. When The Boss drew near to his lady friend, he craned his head over to her and breathed in her scent. The male relaxed and stopped moaning.
"I thought, people say these reptiles don't have any feelings, but we've seen it firsthand," Benenati said.
He went back into the house. His wife stayed in the garage, asking the powers that be that the tortoises not suffer.
Her prayers were answered a few minutes later. UC Davis called back. They would take the six most injured of the tortoises and help out with part of the cost.
Two days later, the Benenatis brought two more tortoises to Davis for care.
At UC Davis, the Benenatis were heartened when an enthusiastic staff greeted them.
"They were jumping in the back of my truck like an emergency service," he said.
Dr. Marilyn Koski said her staff put aside Thanksgiving distractions and poured their energy into helping the tortoises.
They weighed the animals, gave them morphine, fluids and antibiotics. On some of the animals, the fingernail-like coating on their shells had been burned off, exposing the bare bone beneath. Big Mama was euthanized because it was impossible to save her.
A human being wouldn't have survived such extensive burns, Koski said.
The tortoises have a few things going for them, Koski said. The Benenatis' tortoises are a species native to Africa. They're rugged animals that can endure high temperatures. They also don't have to breathe as often as mammals. When threatened, they "tuck in," pulling their heads and limbs into their shells and forming a fortress. Koski said the tortoises probably tucked in and lowered their breathing rate during the fire.
Eight days of treatment
It's hard to tell how severe their wounds are because it's difficult to assess the damage to the soft internal organs hidden beneath the tortoises' shells, Koski said.
Over the eight days the tortoises stayed at UC Davis, the animals received many of the same burn treatments that humans would. Their burns were cleaned twice a day and the animals were given fluids to keep them hydrated. Vets watched for small victories, such as signs of normal bodily functions.
"You've never seen such joy in a group of vet students when we saw these animals urinate," Koski said.
One encouraging moment came when the Benenatis visited the tortoises in the specially heated room where doctors were keeping them. The tortoises had been resting motionless, Koski said, but when they heard their owners' voices, they extended their heads out of their shells in the direction of the sound.
"You could tell they were responding to his voice," Koski said. "It was quite striking."
After eight days of treatment, the Benenatis brought the tortoises home. Of the 12 that were burned in the fire, seven are alive.
Now the couple spends about five hours a day treating them. They've converted their laundry room into a makeshift clinic. A pile of folded towels on a countertop serves as the exam table. The fridge is stocked with injectable antibiotics.
Late Wednesday morning, it was time to give one of the tortoises his twice daily dose of fluids. Jack Benenati set the animal on the pile of towels and secured him in place with a bungee cord. Then he swabbed a soft spot beneath the tortoise's shell with alcohol and inserted a needle connected to an IV bag. Next he rinsed the tortoise's eyes with saline and rubbed them with ointment.
Five years ago, this tortoise was the size of a quarter; today he weighs 25 pounds. During the treatment, the animal started waving his limbs back and forth, a sign that he was upset. Benenati stroked the tortoise under his chin to soothe him.
Lots of donations
Benenati loves sharing his tortoises with other people. He takes them to schools, shows them off to Girl Scout troops and lets little children ride them at church festivals.
He never charges money.
Now he figures he's being paid back by all the people who've stepped forward to help him since the fire.
A friend of a friend donated a horse trailer as a temporary home for the two biggest tortoises. Someone else provided new windows and sliding doors to build a greenhouse. A fishing buddy handed him an envelope full of cash for vet bills.
Benenati doesn't know how many of the tortoises will survive. It's not clear whether their burned skin and shells will grow back. On Thursday, he drove back to UC Davis so vets could insert feeding tubes into four tortoises who haven't eaten since the fire.
Benenati likes tortoises because they don't get ruffled easily. Now he's hoping their calm nature will see them through this ordeal.
"It's a life lesson for everyone don't let things bother you," Benenati said. "They've been around 80 million years and they haven't changed much, so they must be doing something right."
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2378.