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Tickled by Turtles : O.C. Chapter Devoted to Caring and Finding the Right Homes for These Slow-Footed Creatures

September 07, 1989|AURORA MACKEY

He calls it Casa de Tortuga. That's Spanish for Turtle House.

And, boy, does Walter Allen of Fountain Valley have turtles: about 500 turtles and tortoises to be more precise--everything from hatchlings to 400-pound adults.

Allen, a retired oil company executive, started his unusual hobby 22 years ago.

"I met a girl I was going around with, and she had some turtles," he said. "I fell in love with them, and now it's a hobby that got out of hand."

Allen, 63, who lives next door to the house he converted into a turtle sanctuary, bought some of the slow-footed creatures. But, as a member of the Orange County chapter of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club, he also has adopted many of them.

The club, which has six chapters and nearly 2,500 members, was formed 25 years ago to provide information on the proper care of various species of turtles and tortoises. But tortoise "adoption" is a major focus of the club.

"The animal shelters have our phone number, the zoo has our number, and any time they get a tortoise they don't know what to do with, they turn it in to us," said Jan Gordon of Sylmar, adoption coordinator for the club's San Fernando Valley chapter.

The club also works in cooperation with the state Department of Fish and Game to place endangered tortoises in people's homes.

Finding homes for the reptiles isn't difficult.

"The average wait for a California desert tortoise is one year, and there's a four-year wait for females," Gordon said. (Other types of tortoises are in demand, Gordon said, but none is as sought-after as the California desert tortoise.) To encourage breeding, she added, female desert tortoises are placed only in homes where there already is a male.

Although the club has had the policy for some time, members say it is even more important now because the California desert tortoise was placed on the endangered species list by Fish and Game in July.

"They've been dying off by the thousands," said Marc Graff, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and president of the club's Valley chapter. "Part of it has been due to developers and off-road vehicles, but a lot of people have brought them back from the desert and then didn't know how to care for them."

Some of the uprooted tortoises developed a respiratory disease--the possible result of smog--and many were then taken back to the desert when their owners no longer wanted them, Graff said. Soon, the respiratory disease spread to other desert tortoises.

"They've been dropping like flies," he said.

Rather than place the California desert tortoises back into their natural habitat, club members ask that they be turned over to the club. They also stress the importance of education.

Good Homes

"They're becoming like the condor, and that's why captive breeding is so important," Gordon said, adding that homes with unfenced swimming pools, aggressive dogs or easily escapable yards would probably be ruled out as good homes.

"We have to protect these guys," she said.

After a California desert tortoise is placed in a new home, Gordon said, the owner fills out a permit that is mailed to Fish and Game.

The California desert tortoise, which cannot be legally sold in pet stores, isn't the only species in trouble. Many of the more exotic tortoise species have been threatened by the worldwide destruction of rain forests. Their numbers, too, are dwindling.

"Three years ago we had all kinds of tortoises. Now it's extremely difficult to get a hold of any of them," said Michael Gutierrez, manager of the Pet Emporium in Burbank.

Some South American tortoises, which Gutierrez said were easily found five years ago, can now cost $800 in pet stores. Greek tortoises, which sold for $65 three years ago, now cost $275, he said. A five-inch pancake tortoise from South America sells for $90 at Pet Emporium.

"The stock market went down, but the tortoise market has gone up," Gutierrez said.

No Adoption Fee

The club, however, does not charge for tortoise adoptions.

Although many club members breed turtles or tortoises, Graff said most did not join for that reason. Most simply needed more information on how to care for their pet and had heard about the club through the turtle grapevine--pet owners, pet stores and club members, he said.

"I came out from Boston to go to law school, and I brought my two tortoises with me. When one of them got sick, though, I realized I was just flying by the seat of my pants," said Michele MacDonald, a Silver Lake attorney who discovered the club two months ago. "I've found out some things not to do and have gotten some good advice from other turtle lovers."

Mike Connors, a UCLA biochemist whose Reseda home is the stomping ground for 40 turtles and tortoises, learned some similar lessons early on. While still a student, Connors kept several tortoises in his Santa Monica apartment. Uncertain of what to feed them, he put them on a typical college student's diet.

Pizza for Tortoises

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