photo by Gary Warth

Sam Comes Home

The Beloved Story of the Duvals’ RelationshipS with Sam, a 600 lb. Galapagos Tortoise

Most children grow up with a dog, a cat, or a bunny as a pet. Often this childhood relationship teaches a child responsibility, boosts self-esteem, and forges unforgettable, happy childhood memories. For Therese Duval, this type of pet relationship blossomed with an extraordinary creature: a Galapagos tortoise named Sam!

Now CEO of the San Diego Botanic Garden (SDBG), Julian Duval brought Sam home from a reptile house at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois when he was 19 years old. When Sam arrived, Therese was besotted and treated him like a beloved puppy. She entered him into the local Pet Parade contest where he won a Blue Ribbon for the most unusual pet, and the unlikely duo earned a photo in the local newspaper.

Shortly after, Sam outgrew Therese and Julian’s mother’s home and had to be sent to California to live with a member of the California Turtle and Tortoise Society, Lois Dickson. As Julian’s wife, Leslie, related, “Lois had other tortoises and children of her own, and Sam lived happily ever after in sunny California.” Then 9-year-old Therese felt heartbroken but began a pen pal relationship with Lois, which grew into a ten year relationship.

Forty years later, Julian was reading the San Diego Turtle & Tortoise Society’s newsletter, when he noticed something unbelievable. On the cover was Lois Dickson with her two 600 lb. Galapagos tortoises, Jaws and Sam!

Julian and Therese reunited with Lois, and both were able to reconnect with Sam as well. Due to his friendly, easy-going nature, Lois decided Sam would make a great fit at SDBG, and two years later with SDBG’s approval, Sam became the property of SDGB, with Julian as his legal guardian. The Duvals still care for him to this day, and he adores the attention he gets. “Sam is a big hit with people because he likes people so much. He is happiest when he is being petted,” shared Leslie.

The SDBG offers visits with Sam to the disabled as a part of their pet therapy program and plans on providing him with a habitat that will be open to the public one day. Visits with Sam are by a private appointment only.

Leslie Duval has written a book about Sam’s life entitled Too Big to Lose, which is based on the premise that “while childhood friendships may be lost, some friends are just too big to lose.”