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

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

"I used to feed them pizza," he said, smiling somewhat sheepishly. "It wasn't the best possible diet for them."

So just what is it, newcomers inevitably ask, that catches a turtle's culinary fancy? It depends on the species, comes the inevitable answer.

Gordon, who has box turtles and California desert tortoises, as well as several exotic species--including a diamond-speckled Greek tortoise and a red-nosed variety called the red leg tortoise--says that just like with people, tastes among tortoises vary. As a result, she added, pleasing their palates can be time-consuming.

"I go outside every morning, and it can take me two hours just to feed them all," she said. "Desert tortoises are vegetarians, and so I'll feed them peas, carrots, corn, lettuce, hibiscus flowers and dandelions. Red legs tend to like fruit more. Box turtles like snails and earthworms."

And don't forget about varying that menu.

"Tortoises get bored with the same thing day after day," she said.

Betty Alice Kinder, secretary of the club's Valley chapter, said she has been around tortoises since she was a child and is still learning things. Sixty years ago, she said, the tortoise her mother found along the California Aqueduct became a member of the family. Kinder had the tortoise as a pet until its death last year.

"It was operated on for bladder stones," she said, a touch of sadness in her voice. "But I guess she was just old."

Club members point out that, with the proper care, many tortoises can outlive their owners. Desert tortoises can live to be 100. Box turtles, which can grow larger than a man's fist, can live to age 40 or 50. Galapagos tortoises, which often resemble slowly moving boulders and can weigh several hundred pounds, may live to be older than 150.

"I expect mine to be around a long time," Gordon said. "I put them in my will for my kids."

For further information about the Orange County chapter--or the care and feeding of turtles--call Allen at (714) 962-0612.

Not all questions the group hears have to do with eating habits and illnesses, though. Susan Lockhart of Reseda joined the club in 1985 when she was given a tortoise and didn't know how to care for it. Now she has a different problem.

A Mean One

"I just got this European tortoise, and he's a mean one. He bites my other tortoises, and I'm not sure what to do with him," Lockhart said at the club's annual chapterwide meeting, held recently at Walter Allen's Casa de Tortuga.

Without a doubt, Casa de Tortuga was a fitting place for the gathering. The house, tucked away on a residential street and resembling the homes next to it, is wall-to-wall with turtles and tortoises.

Allen converted the residence several years ago. Among the residents are two Galapagos tortoises named Daphne and Darwin--Daphne is on permanent loan from the Honolulu Zoo. These two tortoises take up a large portion of one fenced lawn.

Running pools in the back yard hold at least 100 water turtles, each one the size of a dinner plate.

"Do you remember the tiny, flat water turtles you got as a kid that always died within a week?" Connors asked as he looked into the pool. "Well, these are the same kind. It's just that very few people knew how to care for them properly." But Connors added of Allen: "He has it down to a fine art."

Devoted Fans

What is it about turtles and tortoises that arouses such devotion and interest?

Some members say it is because tortoises are clean and don't shed like cats or dogs. Others are intrigued by a species that socialized with the dinosaurs. Gordon cites the affectionate nature of one 80-year-old tortoise that likes to fall asleep on Gordon's foot. Graff likes the way his tortoise scratches at the back door when she wants to come in the house.

"I wouldn't say they are particularly intelligent," Graff said. "But they hold your interest."

As for Allen, the turtles have held his interest a lot longer than the lady friend who first got him hooked. ("She's long gone somewhere," he said.)

"I just fell in love with them 22 years ago. It's hard to explain," Allen said. "Here, I can have all the turtles I want. They don't make any noise, and they're fairly easy to maintain, and they don't defecate too much and, as I'd say, stink up the neighborhood, whereas if I had 25 dogs here and they were barking and everything, they'd throw me out of town."

Then there is the group itself. Members say the meetings give them a chance to meet interesting people with varied backgrounds, with only one thing that bonds them all.

"There's a lot of warmth and a lot of friendly people," Gordon said.

The kind of atmosphere, it would seem, that could bring even the shyest types out of their shells.

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