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PETS : Turtles and Tortoises Come In From Cold

April 08, 1993|LYNDA NATALI | Lynda Natali is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition

When Betsy McCormick was a little girl, her parents took her on a cross-country trek. As they zigzagged across the United States, they picked up five extra passengers along the way--all turtles.

Today, McCormick has more than 50 in her back yard, including everything from a 90-pound African leopard tortoise to tiny water turtles--small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

"They are very fascinating," McCormick said of her pets. Watching them is like "a natural tranquilizer. You do have personality conflicts from time to time. But most of the time they are just very peaceful animals."

The turtles and tortoises in her collection are more than a hobby; they are a part of her life. She has a routine to care for her herd, including weekly trips to the Fullerton farmers market for their food and roll call each night before bedtime to make sure nobody has escaped.

Each has a name and its own personality, McCormick said. Like Yella, a South American yellow foot tortoise that loves to get his neck rubbed and follows McCormick around like a puppy. There is also Senor, a hardy soul that survived a near-drowning in the pool.

And Big Lucy, a 90-pound African leopard tortoise considered the queen of the herd, that walks around with a hibiscus plant hanging out of her mouth.

Things really get exciting during the mating season, McCormick said. Some of the tortoises cluck like chickens to get their mates' attention. But the elongated tortoises from Asia take a more aggressive approach to finding a mate: They ram into potential partners. "You would swear they were hitting each other with baseball bats," McCormick said.

Experts agree that turtles and tortoises (land turtles with thick skin and elephantine legs) are rewarding pets to have. But they don't come with an owner's manual, and like all pets require special attention and care. Turtle lovers caution that many well-intentioned people often don't know how to properly care for their pets and can hurt or even kill them.

Many turtles are purchased in a pet store, and the sellers don't know much about the animal, said Shellie Freid, president of the Orange County Chapter of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club.

Freid, who runs a rescue and adoption center out of her home, sees firsthand the damage that improper care can do.

"Like any other animal, they have to be closely observed to know if something is wrong," Freid said. "I think people want a turtle because they think it is going to be a minimal-care item. It may not need 10 hours a day of care, but it needs care."

Many turtle owners endanger their pets by failing to keep them warm. Because turtles are coldblooded, their body temperature is the same as their surroundings. If the turtle is housed in a cold room or yard that doesn't have material to allow it to get beneath for warmth, it can't digest its food. The problem can lead to death.

To keep her turtles from getting cold, McCormick has eight turtle houses that have warming pads and other heating devices.

Another key to turtle health is a proper diet, which can only be assured by figuring out where the turtle comes from and copying its natural diet, Freid said.

Sometimes it's difficult to know where a turtle comes from because the only kinds of turtles legally sold in California are non-native species.

Native species can be adopted through such organizations as the California Turtle and Tortoise Club. These groups often have long waiting lists, and potential owners are scrutinized for their ability to care for the animals. Turtles can cost anywhere from $10 to $100.

Two of the most popular species kept in Orange County are the desert tortoise and box turtle.

The desert tortoise is a native that cannot be bought or sold. The species, which has the distinction of being the state reptile, is a grazing animal that needs a variety of plants and vegetables for a proper diet. Good food sources include broccoli, endives, sprouts, weeds, flowers and other plant life.

Because they can live more than 100 years, desert tortoises often have many owners during their lifetime.

Box turtles are a non-native species found in wet wooded areas in the Eastern United States. They are omnivorous and can live more than 85 years. Good food sources include soaked dog or cat chow.

Where to Find Turtle Care

The California Turtle and Tortoise Club, Orange County chapter. The group will hold a Turtle and Tortoise Show on April 25 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Martin Recreation Center, at Harbor Boulevard and La Palma Avenue in Anaheim. Members will be on hand to answer questions and give out information. The club holds monthly meetings and has a newsletter that includes information on adopting turtles. (714) 870-9696.

Casa de Tortuga, the private turtle and tortoise collection of Walter Allen of Fountain Valley. Staff members are available to answer questions weekdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon. Tours are given during the week, but reservations must be made, sometimes up to a year in advance. Adoptions are also available. (714) 962-0612.

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