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Turtle Lovers Unite : Club members share a keen interest in the animals and work for their welfare.

January 28, 1994|ELAINE WALDORF GEWIRTZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Elaine Waldorf Gewirtz is a Westlake Village writer. and

Think about packing your pet in a comfy shoe box lined with want ads and storing it on a shelf in the garage for the winter. Sure beats paying a pet sitter or boarding fees.

Among the 60 San Fernando Valley members of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club, about 35 share this advantage, since their California desert tortoises are deep into their winter hibernation.

The group meets once a month at Fallbrook Square to share their interest in turtles and tortoises and to work for their welfare.

"Our chapter . . . rescues a lot of tortoises that people don't want or can't take care of anymore. We get about three calls a week," says club President Bob Kinder.

He explains that in the 1950s, it was a fad to drive out to the desert and bring a tortoise back. Now these owners are moving out of state or into retirement homes and can't take these pets with them.

Today, California desert tortoises are on the endangered species list, and it is illegal to remove them from the desert or take them across state lines.

"Once desert tortoises are taken from the desert and moved to damp areas, they develop an upper-respiratory disease that never goes away. They can't be returned to the desert because they carry the disease back to the healthy tortoises," says Kinder's wife, Bettyalice.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sometimes contacts the organization to help save confiscated animals.

"Pet dealers in foreign countries frequently ship turtles or tortoises here illegally. Rather than stressing these animals by putting them back on a plane for another 22 hours and risk losing them completely, they ask us to take care of them," says club adoption Chairwoman Diane Levine.

It's not unusual for college instructors Levine and her husband Stan to have buckets of undersized helmeted side-neck turtles from Ghana on their dining room table. The couple's back yard is divided into turtle habitats. One pond has large red-eared sliders that weigh about 15 pounds. These are the same green turtles Stan Levine remembers buying from the neighborhood drugstore and holding in the palm of his hand when he was growing up.

"It's amazing how big the sliders get when they're raised in a big pond instead of a small aquarium," he says.

The Levines' side yard is devoted to Lois and Clark, two African spurred thighed tortoises the couple adopted a few years ago.

"They're from the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, and they need a dry and warm climate all the time," Stan Levine says.

The Levines gave Lois and Clark individual dog igloos, complete with separate heating blankets, because the tortoises prefer to be alone.

"Lois is an early riser, and Clark likes to sleep in," says Stan. "She's pretty territorial. One day the cable repairman took off because he saw 45-pound Lois barreling down the yard after him.

"Believe it or not, Lois can move pretty fast when she wants to," Diane says.


Also sharing adoption duties, club member Kay Berry makes follow-up visits after a turtle goes to a new home.

"I bring my own scale to make sure the turtle is growing," says Berry, a cosmetologist who devotes about 25 hours a week to turtle duties.

"We also want to make the public aware of the special needs these animals have," says Bettyalice Kinder, who each week buys fresh fruit and two large boxes of frozen carrots and peas to feed her turtles.

The club does not buy or sell turtles, but keeps a waiting list for adoptions.

"We're very protective. New owners are carefully screened to make sure they will give the turtles the care they need," says Virginia Ditto of the adoption committee. "When the 'Ninja Turtle' movie came out, mothers bombarded pet stores looking for a birthday present for their children."

Club members would like to see retail stores prohibited from selling turtles and tortoises, especially since so many of them are neglected by their young owners.

Where and When

What: California Turtle and Tortoise Club.

When: 7:30 p.m. the third Friday of the month.

Location: Community Meeting Room, Fallbrook Square Mall, 6507 Fallbrook Ave., Canoga Park.

What: Club's educational exhibit at Van Nuys Sherman Oaks Recreation Center, 14201 Huston Ave., Sherman Oaks. Hundreds of tortoises and turtles will be displayed.

When: In May, at a date to be announced.

Call: Bob Kinder, club president, (818) 344-5607.

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