FESTIVALS & EVENTS : A Place to Come Out of Their Shells

Rose Apodaca is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

Cowabunga! You mean turtles don't eat pizza, can't handle karate kicks, and live in the suburbs instead of sewers?

The Teenage Mutant Ninja variety aside, it seems that turtles in Orange County lead simple lives that Walter Allen would like the public to learn more about. Allen owns Casa de Tortuga, a private sanctuary housing 500 turtles and tortoises in Fountain Valley.

He established the sanctuary, which skirts a residential neighborhood, in 1974 after spending five years collecting the reptiles on a smaller scale. In 1967, he purchased his first--a box turtle--and joined the California Turtle and Tortoise Club (CTTC). His collection has now grown to 100 different species--quite a variety considering there have only been 250 species documented throughout the world.

The facility, supported by income from the family oil business Allen sold years ago and staffed by volunteer "turtle enthusiasts," is affiliated with the CTTC. Allen also works with state and federal agencies that protect the hard-back reptiles, taking in abandoned turtles and providing information on their habits and diseases.

On Saturday, the Casa de Tortuga will hold its annual open house, giving the public a chance to witness eggs of the endangered California desert tortoise hatching and the rest of the collection in action. The sanctuary is open to the public throughout the year but only to small groups in guided tours and the waiting list is usually long.

On display inside the facility are hatcheries and aquariums containing small turtles and tortoises, in addition to an extensive exhibit of turtle collectibles, such as wood carvings, key chains and mugs. Outside, the newly remodeled grounds include a 5,000-gallon pond for water turtles.

Although the sanctuary's two Galapagos Island tortoises, each weighing up to 300 pounds, probably steal the most attention, a rare albino red ear slider from the southeastern United States should not be overlooked.

The Casa is not a pet store, although it does act as a liaison between state agencies and private individuals "adopting" exotic or endangered turtles that have been domesticated and cannot return to the wild. For example, it is illegal to sell or remove the desert tortoise from the desert, but if born in captivity, it can be adopted through the state.

But regardless of how rare the turtle or tortoise is, Allen and his fellow club members strongly encourage anyone interested in getting one to first join a club for the support and education it provides. There are eight chapters of the CTTC in the state, charging a membership fee of $10 annually.

What: Casa de Tortuga open house.

When: Saturday, Aug. 24, from noon to 4 p.m.

Where: 10455 Circulo de Zapata, Fountain Valley.

Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Warner Avenue exit, go east to Ward Street. Turn right onto Ward. Third Street on the right is Circulo de Zapata.

Wherewithal: Admission is free.

Where to Call: (714) 962-0612.

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