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LA Times:Backyard is a haven for turtles, tortoises

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Posted by desiree on August 29, 2002 at 11:26:43:

Backyard is a haven for turtles, tortoises
Chino's Jim and Lynda Misiak are the owners, caretakers and adoption brokers for dozens of reptiles.
By Douglas Haberman
Inland Valley Voice

August 15 2002

Jim and Lynda Misiak have a unique lawn-care system in their Chino backyard.

They own three African spurred tortoises, the largest mainland tortoise species and the third-largest species of tortoise in the world. They start out the size of quarters but can grow to more than 200 pounds in the wild. In captivity they don't get much beyond a mere 150 pounds. The Misiaks' largest is 105 pounds.

They eat a lot. In the Misiaks' backyard, that means grass.

"I have not mowed my lawn in eight weeks," Jim Misiak said Friday.

"They don't do a lot of the edging for me," he said as one of them chewed on a mouthful of grass. "But they do everything else."

The Misiaks also feed them bananas -- peel and all -- and other food.

"If we didn't feed them, we'd have no grass," Lynda Misiak said.

The tortoises, native to countries along the southern Sahara Desert, seem to have an inexplicable affection for human toes, too. A barefoot Lynda Misiak had to shoo them away several times.

"You are not getting my toes," she admonished one.

The African spurred tortoises, which aficionados call sulcatas, using their Latin species name, are in good company. The Misiaks at any given time are caring for 50 to 75 turtles and tortoises. Right now in addition to the sulcatas, they have leopard tortoises, Central American wood turtles, Russian tortoises and several varieties of box turtles, for a total of 62.

Jim is president and Lynda is secretary of the Chino Valley Chapter of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club. The chapter has about 100 members.

Lynda is also the adoption coordinator for the chapter and works closely with the Inland Valley Humane Society in Pomona. She accepts lost or abandoned turtles from the society for temporary safekeeping and finds permanent new homes for them. She checks the yards of potential new homes, making sure pesticides and insecticides are not used, that a barrier is present to prevent the turtle from escaping and that any dogs will be compatible with the turtle.

"They take animals that we would otherwise have difficulty placing," said Renee Laury, the humane society's supervisor for health services. "They also have the expertise to take care of these animals before they place them."

The general public can get a close-up view of many kinds of turtles and tortoises at the chapter's annual show on Sept. 7 in Chino. Admission is $1 per person. Proceeds go into a fund for sick and injured turtles and for education programs.

The club board met at the Misiaks' home last week to go over in detail the preparations for the show. There will be more than 50 tables, and this year the chapter for the first time intends to hand out awards to the crowd's favorite turtle, favorite tortoise and favorite display.

A visitor to the Misiak home might take as long as, say, three seconds to discern the couple's hobby. Almost every item of decor, inside and out, features turtles in some shape or form. Even a serving bowl had little ceramic turtles ambling along its interior.

"Tortoise" typically refers to certain species that live on land, while "turtles" are aquatic or terrestrial. The only species the Misiaks own that requires a state permit is the California desert tortoise, which is protected and can't be bought in stores.

The Misiaks keep the different species separated in their backyard, which is divided into enclosures based on the kind of habitat they need. For example, the box turtles live in their own habitat inside a gazebo. It's moister than other enclosures because the box turtles need the water. Because the sulcatas are powerful enough to knock over walls and fences, the Misiaks have had to reinforce the fence around their backyard as well as the gazebo.

The Misiaks feed the box turtles large live mealworms. Jim Misiak scooped a few from a container filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of worms and tossed them at the turtles in the gazebo enclosure. The turtles scrambled to gobble them up.

"They've got to be moving," Lynda Misiak said of the worms, or the box turtles won't eat them. The group of 20 or more box turtles devours 500 mealworms a week.

The Misiaks even had to buy a second refrigerator to hold all the lettuce and other foodstuffs they give their turtles and tortoises. And they grow roses and hibiscus to feed them, too.

"It's unbelievable how much they can consume," Lynda Misiak said. "They eat all day long."

Of course, some of what goes in comes right out. The sulcatas, in particular, produce a large waste product.

"They poop like cows," said Robb Dominguez of Pomona, the club's vice president.

New club members can learn from the experience of the veteran members. Experts give talks at the club's monthly meetings and club members take trips to points of interest, such as Turtle Dreams, a privately owned turtle sanctuary in Santa Barbara. The club even keeps a list of area veterinarians that specialize in reptiles.

Owning turtles is a big responsibility but it's also fun, said club treasurer Don Curran of Corona.

"It takes over your life," he said.

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