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CA Press: Abandoned tortoises fast-growing issue

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Posted by W von Papinešu on May 05, 2003 at 21:12:02:

VENTURA COUNTY STAR (California) 04 May 03 Abandoned tortoises fast-growing issue
- Rescuers quickly finding themselves overwhelmed (Lisa I. Kranz)
Pull out plastic file-cabinet drawers during the winter at Elsie and Horatio "Ray" Cogswell's home in Camarillo and you'll find hibernating tortoises. Until the animals start wiggling in the spring, they get an organized place to doze.
"All are desert tortoises and have numbers instead of names, in the order that we received them," Elsie said. "With the exception of Ethel. She had a mate named Fred -- after the 'Lucy' show -- and we felt she should keep her name."
The couple's largest tortoise, "No. 1," was full-grown when given to Ray by a neighbor, and is believed to be about 100 years old. No. 1 survived being stepped on by a horse but still has a hoof mark in its shell.
"With the exception of two we hatched from eggs, 10 were given to us by people who didn't want them or couldn't take care of them," Elsie said.
To many in the Santa Rosa Valley, the Cogswells are "the tortoise people." But like other local tortoise rescuers, they now are overwhelmed.
The couple cannot accept any more turtles, referring new cases to the area chapter of the California Tortoise and Turtle Club.
"The numbers of rescues are increasing dramatically," said Stephanie Pappas, longtime club member and adoption chairwoman for the club's Ventura-Santa Barbara chapter.
Pappas says that in the past two years alone, 390 animals came to club members. "Of those, 273 were adopted out. Thirty-one were fatalities. We continually get turtles or tortoises that can't be saved, whether due to illness or improper care, that have to be euthanized. It's a tough thing to do. But we turn none away."
Many come from Turtle Dreams, a rescue organization in Santa Barbara. According to Jim Carroll of Fillmore, president of the California Tortoise and Turtle Club's Ventura-Santa Barbara chapter, some are from private homes, while others come from drug raids or pet shelters. Plenty get dropped off with health problems.
"Currently, we have about 20 that need homes," Carroll said.
Pappas thinks one reason the club is taking in more animals is because more people than ever are aware of the organization. Word is getting out that they're a legitimate rescue organization that won't euthanize tortoises that can be saved. Also, they won't fine anyone. It is illegal to buy or own some kinds of tortoises and turtles, and government fines can range from $10,000 to $50,000.
Sulcatas are one of the most common types abandoned, because they often are bought when cute and small, then grow to 800 to 1,000 pounds in weight.
It's a bad cycle -- stores and black market dealers are selling more tortoises and turtles, and more people are finding out they can't care for them, club members say.
For the record, a tortoise is a land-dwelling turtle with a high, domed shell and column-like, elephant-shaped hind legs. They go to water only to drink or bathe. Turtle is used for all other kinds, such as pond turtles, box turtles and sea turtles.
Tortoises are typically low-maintenance animals unless they get sick, Carroll says.
They are "great diggers, always looking for a way out. If they do escape, they just start walking and don't come back," Cogswell said. Her yard's fence has mesh-like chicken wire buried 8 to 10 inches deep.
Some tortoises have been mysteriously showing up in private preserves, lakes and ponds in California. "These are freshwater inhabitants that have showed up in oceans and on streets and may affect native pond turtles. It's a big, big problem," Pappas said.
Her advice: Don't release them in the wild where they don't belong. Among other things, they may transmit a disease that is one reason why California Desert Tortoises are designated a threatened species.
It's illegal to buy, sell, take or harm California Desert Tortoises, which represent about 30 percent of the animals the club takes in, Pappas says. Owners must have a license to keep them.
About 40 percent of the club's animals are Red-eared Sliders bought illegally on the black market. It's illegal to sell them until they reach 4 inches in length, because of the possible transmission of salmonella from turtles to humans, Pappas says.
The club's local chapter currently has about 55 members. "We are always looking for volunteers, mostly to assist with fund-raising and educating the public," Carroll said. You don't have to be a member or own a turtle to attend the club's monthly meeting in Carpinteria.
For more information on the club, call Carroll at 524-4032.

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