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Turtle Lovers Are Emerging From Their Shells : For Valley Club, the Best Pet Comes in a Hard Cover

May 22, 1986|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

They don't talk back, and they don't bite the mailman. . . .

--Eric Akaba

Consider the tortoise.

Take your time. It's not going anywhere. Not so's you'd notice. Unless you happen to be a turtle freak, like Will Watson.

Watson's T-shirt says it all. On the front is a picture of a California--or Desert--tortoise and the legend "I May Be Slow." The back reads "But I Get There" in lettering above what can only be described as a turtle's patoot.

Watson has gotten to Canoga Park a little early--a rarity among the turtle people--and he is waiting in his pickup truck for the meeting to start. Waiting patiently, of course.

The 200-member Valley Chapter of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club meets monthly to swap lore, watch films or slides, put out a little preservation propaganda, pass the hat for the sick and wounded, consider requests for adoption and plan the annual T & T Show.

Talking Turtle

Before the doors open, Watson, 30, of Lancaster, is happy to talk turtle.

"You've got to know them," he says. "When you do, you'll find they're fascinating. They really are. I can watch them for hours.

"I grew up around tortoises--we always had them in the yard--and I've raised them from eggs. Each one is different. They have their own moods, just like people.

"One is aggressive, another shy. Some are active, some passive. One wants to fight, the other wants to run away. One undersized male I have just lies in ambush in the shade, then attacks like a little tank and rams another male.

"In the winter, though, they all bury the hatchet and hibernate together."

Two days later, on the lawn outside the Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks Recreation Center, Claudia Jacobs is walking General Patton and Shelley. Or vice versa. Patton is chasing Shelley with single-minded purpose and Jacobs, in the interest of decorum, is chasing both.

"Slow?" says a passer-by, intrigued in spite of himself. "Hey, they move a lot faster than my ex-wife."

Jacobs, a North Hollywood chiropractor, is taking a breather from the Turtle and Tortoise Show inside, an exhibit-cum-bazaar that is to attract some 500 visitors before day's end. "They come out of curiosity," Jacobs says, "and they become enchanted. I know I did.

"These are box turtles. The male was given to me about five years ago. He was nice enough--friendly, kind of like a little dog--but he seemed, I don't know, lonely . So about a year ago I bought Shelley.

"You know how they say turtles have no expressions? Well, I put her on the kitchen counter with him and I tell you, his eyes lit up. He was so excited! You could see this red glow on his face.

"Now he follows her everywhere. She gets exasperated sometimes and kind of flips him over on his back. That cools him off some.

"But sure, they're different. He loves avocados and she won't touch them. She loves mangoes and he won't eat them. She eats sow bugs, he favors snails.

"He's more aggressive. Sometimes embarrassingly so. . . ."

Inside the rec center, Elaine Sludikoff has an entirely different outlook on the virtues of the reptile. Turtle people are like that.

"I have a Desert tortoise at home," says Sludikoff of Los Angeles. "Blossom is my pet. I enjoy her immensely.

"She's quiet, she's sweet, she enjoys her flower petals and her fruit, and for my part, she gives me a lot of peace and serenity. Just watching a tortoise walk, munching her way around the yard, I find I relax."

Sludikoff's day at the show is less than serene, but she's brought it on herself.

Appearing as "The Unknown Turtle," she is decked out head to tail in a many-splendored felt-and-foam costume of her own design. The back shell--or carapace--is dark green; the front shell--the plastron--is yellow and orange.

Everyone wants a picture taken with Unknown. "It adds a lightness, a joy to the show," she says, and it costs $2, proceeds toward preservation of turtles and tortoises, many of them facing extinction.

"The California Desert tortoise is becoming endangered," Marc Graff was saying at the Valley chapter meeting. "With increasing development, there's a gradual loss of habitat. There are the occasional people who take tortoises for food, other people who think they'd be nice to have and want to short-circuit the pet trade, even though they know nothing about care and feeding.

"Then there are those motorcycles races that destroy the ecology, and even people who shoot tortoises for target practice."

Graff, a Canoga Park psychiatrist and president of the chapter, points out that the Desert tortoise is protected. A permit is required, and the proper procedure is to "adopt" a tortoise. Prerequisites are "a fenced yard cleared of poisonous plants; experience; means and willingness to pay the veterinary bill. We try to give them to good homes. Jan Gordon here is in charge of our adoptions."

"You have to watch your dogs," says Gordon, who harbors five tortoises, two collies and a nosy new dachshund at her Sylmar home.

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