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CALIFORNIA

Snap Out of It! Old Bob Caught

An alligator snapping turtle, the stuff of legend in Fullerton, is taken from his haven.

September 11, 2004|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

He lurked in the lake's muddy bottom for decades. He was huge, those who had seen him testified, with fierce claws and powerful jaws. How the creature got there was a matter of conjecture, but everyone agreed on one thing: Bump into him at your own peril.

Scotland may have its Loch Ness monster. But in Fullerton, the legend is of Old Bob, the giant alligator snapping turtle of Laguna Lake.

And, boy, was he ticked off Thursday when workers who were dredging the lake as part of a restoration project hoisted the 4-foot-long, 100-pound beast from his comfortable home.

"We all jumped back. You would've too," said Peter Path, owner of Pathco Lake Management, the Santa Monica company that snagged Old Bob in its net. "It sort of freaked us out."

The discovery put flesh on a story that had been spun since the 1970s by astonished fishermen who have inadvertently hooked Old Bob.

"He's an awesome, awesome turtle," said Sharon Paquette of Brea, the vice president of the Orange County chapter of the California Turtle & Tortoise Club. "He's so handsome."

Alligator snapping turtles, which are native to the U.S. Southeast, are illegal in California. Paquette, who was called to take temporary possession of Old Bob, suspects he was a pet that got too big to handle and was released in the lake -- perhaps as long ago as the 1950s judging by his size.

Because alligator snapping turtles in the wild can weigh more than 200 pounds and live 100 years, Old Bob is probably more accurately middle-aged.

And he was living the good life. With no natural predators, Old Bob was the king of Laguna Lake, lazily gorging on a buffet of fish to his heart's content.

All he needed was a TV and a recliner and he would've been set.

This summer, work began on a $2-million restoration of Laguna Lake, which was built in 1916 to irrigate orange groves. In recent years, the lake -- now the centerpiece of a popular park -- had become choked with decomposing vegetation.

Path and his crew had spent about a week pulling some 5,000 fish, including bass, catfish and crappie, from the lake in preparation for drainage. Nearing the end of their work Thursday, they found what appeared to be huge log in their net.

Except this log had a head that lunged at them.

"He looked prehistoric," Path said.

Old Bob fought back, snapping off the end of a bamboo pole Path used to maneuver him and trying to climb out of Paquette's pickup. He seemed to calm down after she placed a kiddie pool, a blanket and a net on top of him.

For the time being, Old Bob is in a private backyard pond in Orange County. He has plenty of fish, chicken and plants to eat and will eventually be crated and flown to a preserve on the East Coast.

It's sort of an assisted living arrangement for turtles.

"He probably couldn't survive in the wild," Paquette said. "He doesn't know how to hunt. He's had too cushy of a life."

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