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Iowa museum says African leopard tortoise was never stolen; employee lied to keep up the story

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DUBUQUE, Iowa - An African leopard tortoise thought to be stolen from an Iowa museum was actually trapped behind paneling in her enclosure, and a misguided employee who found her lied to keep up the story about her theft, the museum announced Friday.

In a bizarre move, the employee who found the 18-pound reptile named Cashew put her into a building elevator in an attempt to prevent the museum further embarrassment, said Jerry Enzler, president and CEO of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque.

The tortoise was found alone in a museum elevator on Thursday, two days after the museum had discovered she was missing and announced that she had been stolen. Museum officials told media outlets Thursday that they believed a regretful thief had smuggled her back inside.

But several hours later, a museum employee came forward and told the truth: Cashew was never stolen.

"The action taken by the employee Thursday afternoon was wrong and is not reflective of the integrity of the staff who dedicate themselves to the highest of Museum & Aquarium standards," Enzler said in a statement Friday.

Enzler said the employee, whose name and position has not been released, will be reprimanded. He said it was a personal issue and did not provide any additional information.

Cashew is one of six large tortoises on display in the enclosure. A 4-foot glass wall separates visitors from the creatures.

Enzler said the notion of a stolen tortoise grabbed national attention.

"The idea that someone may steal a tortoise was so disturbing, and I think people responded to that," he said.

He's just glad the tortoise is in good health, and he said staff is reviewing the enclosures.

"It has good karma to know Cashew wasn't stolen and someone didn't violate the museum and its exhibit," he said. "I think it restores our faith in humanity to know someone didn't take the animal."

The 9-year-old tortoise will be back on display Saturday.

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