Malibu turtles have cause to celebrate

Susan Tellem with an African Sulcata tortoise at her home. She and her husband Marshall Thompson founded American Tortoise Rescue to help rescue tortoises and turtles.

Friday is World Turtle Day, which brings attention to the often overlooked, abused and, in some cases, endangered animals.

By Nick Thomas / Special to The Malibu Times

May has always been a great month for celebrations. In addition to May Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Memorial Day, there are also official days set aside to recognize mothers, receptionists, nurses and, of course-on May 23 -turtles.

Eight years ago, Malibu couple Susan Tellem and Marshall Thompson founded World Turtle Day as a way to educate the public about these often overlooked, abused, and, in some cases, endangered animals.

“I’ve been rescuing animals all my life,” Tellem said from her home in Malibu. “About 20 years ago we got two tortoises. As we researched how to care for them, we were shocked to learn about the poor conditions in the turtle pet trade and the ignorance and cruelty of some turtle owners.”

After turning their home into a turtle rescue for injured or unwanted animals, the turtles came in droves-and not just from animal shelters in California. “People would FedEx them to us from all over the country,” Tellem said.

Not wanting to turn any away, Tellem and Thompson created American Tortoise Rescue, or ATR, applied for nonprofit organization status, and began adopting out turtles and tortoises to responsible animal caregivers. Tellem estimates more than 3,000 turtles and tortoises have been saved by the ATR.

So just what exactly is the distinction between a turtle and a tortoise?

Well-known animal expert and director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, Jack Hanna, offered some turtle trivia.

“Tortoises live on land and eat plants, whereas turtles generally live in water and live mostly on fish,” Hanna explained by phone. “It’s great to have a day that brings awareness to the many problems turtles and tortoises face around the world, especially loss of habitat.”

Beth Preiss, director of the Exotic Pets Campaign of the Humane Society of the United States, agreed. In addition to highlighting the need to rescue individual turtles, she said World Turtle Day brings attention to other issues.

“There is concern that red-eared slider turtles, popular in the pet trade, are becoming established in regions where they displace and interbreed with native species,” Preiss said from the Humane Society’s headquarters in Maryland.

The Humane Society also hopes that Congress won’t overturn a ban on the sale of turtles less than four inches long.

“Since 1975, it’s been illegal to sell small turtles due to the risk of salmonella,” Preiss said. “Last year, a four-week-old Florida infant died from salmonella transmitted by a pet turtle.”

Preiss said turtles are often sold as low-maintenance pets, but that they have specific needs, that including sunlight, a suitable diet and plenty of living space. Confining turtles to small, indoor tanks, where salmonella can develop, is especially unwise.

“Many suffer and die because of inadequate care by sellers and owners,” Preiss said. “Keeping turtles as pets is not good for the animals or their caretakers.”

Susan Tellem thinks tanks are bad news for turtles, too. “We never adopt turtles out to people with tanks. They are wild animals and we only send them to homes with fenced-in ponds or big yards. A turtle in a tank is a miserable turtle.”

Veteran actor and longtime animal activist Ed Asner is also a supporter of “turtle rights.”

“These armored mortals deceive us into thinking they are impervious to pain and suffering,” Asner said. “The pet trade relies on our inability to give voice to their suffering and, in turn, inflicts added suffering to satisfy the greed of the traders. They must be stopped.”

Abandonment is a common fate for many turtles, especially the imported African Sulcata, which grow into large, heavy tortoises. “People forget that these animals can live for many years, some over 100,” said Florida veterinarian Douglas Mader, an internationally acclaimed expert on reptiles.

He said owners sometimes turn them loose in the wild.

“This should never be done and is ecologically unsound,” Mader said. “It’s also easy to transfer diseases back into the wild.”

He said turtle owners should “contact a local turtle society and ask for help.”

Which is precisely what thousands of people have been doing for years at Tellem’s Malibu sanctuary-a haven for injured or discarded turtles that can’t be returned to their natural habitat.

This year, however, the ATR has decided to discontinue turtle adoptions.

“There are many turtle rescue organizations across the country now, so we’ll be passing cases to them,” Tellem said. “Because of my background in journalism and public relations, I want to focus on becoming an advocate for turtle issues worldwide, and help communities deal with problems in their region.”

However, the 100-some turtles that currently make their home in Tellem’s ponds and one-and-a-half-acre backyard won’t need to look for new homes. They will remain on the Malibu property and continue to enjoy their ocean view.

“Our tortoises are beautiful and healthy,” said Tellem, who feeds them hay, dandelions, leafy green vegetables and sometimes pumpkin, which acts as a natural dewormer. Despite being vegetarian, she cautions that tortoises should never be fed fruit, as it disrupts their digestive system.

“Trust me,” she said, “you don’t want to be around a 100-pound tortoise with diarrhea!”

Hibernating turtles and tortoises are now waking up for the spring, looking for food and searching for a mate. Tellem said May is, therefore, a great time for World Turtle Day and for people to think about these gentle creatures.

“Turtles have been around for hundreds of millions of years,” she said. “They’ve outlived the dinosaurs and earned their place in this world. It’s up to us to help them keep it.”

More information about American Tortoise Rescue can be found online at