Turtles are by far the most popular pet reptile. In 2002, according to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, nearly two million American households had at least one turtle as a pet.
This constitutes nearly 50 percent of all households that keep a pet reptile.
Hamp Simmons knows a lot about turtles. He grew up with them during his childhood in Louisiana.
“I always had turtles because we had little ponds,” he says. He now has two — Peg and Tillie — and his experience tells him that they are red-eared sliders.
“They’re very common,” he says. “In fact, they are a nuisance in California. They are raised commercially in Louisiana and Florida for food. You’ll find baby ones (illegal to sell) in Chinatown areas where they are used for soup.
“Many people have bought them over the years and discovered that they are not the greatest pets in the world if you want an indoor pet. So people end up getting rid of them and dump them in rivers, lakes and places all around California. They’re very invasive. They breed really fast and crowd out the native turtles.”
Pet stores are a magnet for unwanted pets and that’s how the Simmons family acquired their first turtle.
Hamp’s son, Leo, brought home Peg, later to be joined by Tillie and a third that was a traveler and later given to a friend to be put in an aquarium where she couldn’t get out.
Peg and Tillie commune with koi, goldfish and tadpoles that grow into leopard frogs, in addition to three dogs.
“Lena (one of the dogs) wants to play with the turtles really badly but they don’t want to play with her,” says Hamp.
Turtles do have personalities. In most cases they are friendly. Tillie is another story.
“She will close herself up in her shell and sometimes make a hissing sound,” Hamp says.
Peg and Tillie eat koi food, water hyacinths and duck weed, which is the moss kind of plant that grows on top of water.
“I tried to get them to eat minnows, but they won’t, so I have really big minnows,” says Hamp. “They will eat the goldfish that move really slowly, like the fantail gold fish, the pretty ones.
“They’ll eat them really fast, which is something you don’t want, because they are expensive. The regular goldfish that you can buy for ten cents each, they won’t eat at all.”
Turtles bring good luck, according to feng shui principles.
“The turtle shape is good feng shui,” says Hamp. “You want canopy-type trees, those you can sculpt into a turtle shape. If you have a live turtle, it’s even better.”
Allison Brandon has an affinity for turtles, too. She once visited a sea turtle sanctuary in the Caribbean.
Since the completion of a pond a year and a half ago, Allison and Neil Bell have welcomed Anna Nicole and Mr. Turtle, who share the water with goldfish, angelfish and baby ducks.
Here too, are three dogs that they get along with fine.
Allison may explain the appeal of turtles best when she says, “People think you’re strange that you really can be enjoying your turtles so much, because they really don’t do a lot.
“I can watch them for a long time. I’m like a bird watcher. I like watching my dog. I find a great deal of pleasure just watching something that doesn’t require anything back.”
One thing that Allison doesn’t like watching is when the turtles eat the goldfish.
“You can see this brutal little bit of nature,” she says. “They just grab them and chomp them up. You don’t expect your sweet little turtle to have that dark side, but they do.”
Anna Nicole and Mr. Turtle eat crawfish too.
“They play a cat-and-mouse game. The crawfish hide and the turtles chase them. The turtles somehow know how to break through the shell,” she adds. “I would rather they be vegetarian, but they’re not.”
Anna Nicole and Mr. Turtle are quite social.
“That’s the first big shock,” says Allison. “They do have personalities. They’re very friendly. They follow you.
“I sit out here and, sure enough, they come over — they don’t necessarily want food, they just want to be in my company. They’ll make eye contact.”
“You think that you get to a certain point in your life where you’re not going to find anything so delightfully new and full of pleasure right under your nose and I’ve had that happen unexpectedly,” says Allison. “It’s nice to come out and say ‘hello’ and then go on your way.”
Another unexpected pleasure from nature has found its way into Allison’s life — hawk and heron sightings in the yard!
“Apparently there’s a nest of red-tailed hawks on the street,” she says. “I’ve seen what appears to be a teenage hawk.
“In the winter I saw him twice in the tree and the other day I saw him on the fence. My heart just stops. He is so magnificent.
“Recently when I walked out to the yard I saw what looked to be a small person on the bridge. I didn’t have my glasses on. There was just a shudder of a movement. Then he stepped forward.
“He was huge and beautiful. He looked to be about five feet. Is that possible? (The tallest known heron is 4.5 feet.)
“He had his eye on the fish. At the time we had six or seven pretty-good-sized goldfish. He came back at some point because later in the week all the fish were gone. This guy could just step into the pond and pluck them out.”
Turtles are not just turtles — there are several classifications. In addition to freshwater turtles that live in ponds, there are sea turtles.
Another type is the land tortoise. Tortoises do not have bodies designed for swimming and can go without water for a year.
In 1952, Ann Mayer’s father found Oscar when he was rabbit hunting in the Mohave Desert and brought him home for her children.
“Then it was legal,” she says. “You can’t do that now. They’re an endangered species.”
A veterinarian friend of Ann’s son, Patrick, did her thesis on turtles. Two years ago she did blood work on Oscar to check his health and told Ann that her family pet was 100 years old.
Tortoises cannot chew. They eat by cutting the food to bits with their beak.
Allison will be happy to know that Oscar is a vegetarian. He eats broccoli, green beans, apples, grapes, watermelon and corn on the cob.
“He turns the cob as he eats it and the corn gets all over his face,” says Ann. “He loves rose petals too.”
Although tortoises are able to live where the ground temperature may exceed 140 degrees Fahrenheit, they do not like to be in the direct sun, where they will get real hot, and 95 percent of a desert tortoise’s life is spent in underground burrows. When Oscar gets hot he goes into the doghouse.
“He sleeps there,” says Ann. “I check on him every night. He wakes up about 7 in the morning.”
Turtles and tortoises hibernate during winter. Ann makes Oscar a bed in the garage.
“This year when he came out he was real cold so I brought him in the house and let him walk around in the kitchen and then brought him back inside at night for about a week. It had been so cold this winter that he was overly cold.”
Oscar is a favorite in the neighborhood. He grew up with five children and the neighborhood children like to visit.
One important fact to be aware of when touching turtles or tortoises is that they can spread salmonella.
“After the children have handled him, I make them wash their hands,” says Ann.
Although Oscar has a yard of at least 5,000 square feet, he still likes to roam, and this is a common characteristic of turtles and tortoises.
It’s important to have a secure yard. They can dig under a wood fence. Ann has concrete walls so he can’t get out, but she brings him inside when the gardener is there.
“If the gate is open he’ll hike right down the street,” she says.
Turtles and tortoises are no different from other types of pets in that they at some point may become unwanted.
“I admire people who take in animals no one else wants — people who make it their life’s goal to make the world a better place by taking care of these unwanted animals,” says Hamp. “I think it’s wonderful.”
If you would like to adopt one, if you would just like to learn more about these popular family pets or if you have a turtle or tortoise to give up, here are some local organizations that can be contacted.
The American Tortoise Rescue in Malibu provides for the rescue, rehabilitation, protection and adoption of all species of tortoise and turtle. (800) 938-3553 or www.tortoise.com
The California Turtle and Tortoise Society is dedicated to turtle and tortoise preservation, conservation, study and education. (310) 347-8139 for the West-chester chapter or www.turtlesoci ety.org