W von Papineäu
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UNION-TRIBUNE (San Diego, California) 13 September 08 Society remains true to turtles - Devoted membership keeps foster homes for unwanted (Sharon A. Heilbrunn)
San Diego: When Kim Thomas was a little boy, he saw a tortoise with a cracked shell crossing the road while driving around with his dad. He asked his father if he could keep it.
To this day, Thomas, 51, still has that animal – and about a hundred more tortoises and turtles – in his Clairemont backyard.
Thomas, a member of the San Diego Turtle and Tortoise Society, uses his residence as a “foster home” for abandoned, unwanted or injured chelonians. Other homes are used across the county, including in La Mesa, Del Mar and Chula Vista.
“We don't have any dedicated land or reserves to keep the animals, so we use people's houses,” said Ginny Stigen, president of the society.
“We assume veterinary care as well.”
The 450-member society was formed in 1971.
As a nonprofit, it serves to educate people and rescue, rehabilitate and find homes for needy water-dwelling turtles and land-dwelling tortoises.
Stigen said the society has seen an increase in abandoned tortoises since the mortgage crisis prompted a rise in foreclosures. Homeowners are leaving the animals when they vacate or dropping them on nearby streets, endangering them because they can't be reintroduced to the wild.
“The other day someone turned in a 70-pound tortoise who was found walking along a road,” Stigen said. “We want people to know that if it's hard for you, it's okay to call us and turn in an animal. Don't just leave it in your home if you're unable to care for it.”
Dozens of slow-moving tortoises can be found tiptoeing their stumpy feet across Thomas' yard, their patterned shells shifting with every step.
The Thomas' 16-year-old daughter, Kassi Young, helps care for them.
“It's so much fun,” Kassi said as she fed a fig to a Galapagos tortoise weighing more than 100 pounds. “They'll just follow you all around the yard.”
Thomas, a high school math teacher, has been rescuing the reptiles for as long as he can remember, starting with Crack Shell, the tortoise he rescued as a boy.
He's been pegged “The Turtle Whisperer” by his wife, Becky.
Most people bring him foot-long, red-eared sliders they can't take care of anymore.
These turtles are usually about the size of a half-dollar when they're sold, and people fail to realize how big they grow, Becky Thomas said.
“They're cute and tiny and perfect for a little aquarium, but then they get big and need to be moved to a pond,” she said.
“Many people can't do that.”
The Thomases usually find homes for about 400 red-eared sliders every year.
They foster even more in their backyard pond.
Most animals the society receives are quarantined and checked for disease or problems before being put up for adoption.
Some are injured and require surgery or treatment.
“We get animals that have been run over by a car or chewed by a dog,” said Stigen, who has about 30 tortoises at her Escondido home.
Because tortoise DNA doesn't break down like a human's, they usually live well past 100 years.
Most outlive their owners, which is another reason they are turned in.
Turtles are more susceptible to infection because water is prone to bacteria and fungus.
“Turtles and tortoises don't usually die from old age, but from infection, injury or illness,” Kim Thomas said as Piggy, a 130-pound African spurred tortoise, nipped at his feet. “Once you get their environment set up, they're low-maintenance.”
A turtle will thrive in a tank it can grow in, preferably with a filter, heater and fluorescent light. An ideal setting for a tortoise is a closed-in backyard with plenty of grass, a heated area or doghouse where they can retreat at night, and a good mix of sunlight and shade.
“I always tell people if they don't like mowing their yard, get a tortoise,” Becky Thomas said, laughing. “We haven't mowed for years.”
San Diego Turtle & Tortoise Society
Meetings: Monthly at Balboa Park.
The next meeting is 7 p.m. Oct. 10.
Free and open to the public.
More information: sdturtle.org or (619) 593-2123
Society remains true to turtles
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