A Pacific pond turtle stretched out its long neck, the dark brown sheen of its skin gleaming under the sun, and climbed out of its pool of fresh water and onto a cinderblock to bask.
The reptile is one of a couple dozen turtles being held in large plastic tubs at Atascadero’s Charles Paddock Zoo this summer after people scooped them up from the nearly evaporated Atascadero Lake.
Two types of turtles have been plucked from the receding waters: the native pond turtles and a much larger, nonnative species called the red-eared slider.
The sliders, identifiable by red-orange markings on their heads, are pet-store staples and were likely dumped at the lake over the years by people who no longer wanted them as pets, zoo Director Alan Baker said.
“They can be pretty nasty and aggressive, so our Pacific pond turtles … don’t compete well with them,” he said.
City officials have said the lake will dry up entirely this summer, and only a small puddle remains today. The city is waiting for rain to refill the lake, which could take some time.
“Our goal is, while we have the opportunity to get everybody out of the lake, we’ll make sure that only the turtles that belong here go back,” Baker said.
A new citizen conservation program is also in the works to look after the turtles when the lake fills up again.
The concept involves placing temporary color-coded markings on the pond turtles’ shells, so people who normally walk around the lake can keep track of where each turtle hangs out.
Their observations will help the city monitor the lake’s turtle habitat, gauge the turtles’ location preferences (such as whether they like one side of the lake over another), and then determine why.
“We think it would be a neat thing for the public. Like, ‘Oh, that red turtle, I see him every day.’ It gives people a chance to be a little more aware of what’s going on in their environment,” Baker said.
Meanwhile, the red-eared sliders, which have made up about two-thirds of the batch of lake turtles people have turned in, will be given to people and places with outdoor ponds, such as rural residents or wineries. Half a dozen red-eared sliders have already been donated to the Central Coast chapter of the California Turtle & Tortoise Club’s TOO SLO group, Baker said.
All but one turtle were adults, Baker said, some possibly more than 10 years old. They’ve been in good health, although one was brought in dead after being hit by a car.
That’s why it’s important that lake walkers keep an eye out for the shelled critters in the coming weeks and bring them to the zoo, he said.
“We don’t want these guys crossing Highway 41,” Baker said.
Resident Nancy Hair, a board member of the newly formed Friends of Atascadero Lake, has brought five turtles in from Atascadero Lake since late spring.
“I walk with my dog around the lake twice a day, and he just finds them,” Hair said of her 15-year-old shepherd mix named Bruce. “He’s quite the turtle hunter.”
She also coordinated a volunteer effort this month to relocate the ducks and geese that once called the lake home.
The last turtle she and Bruce saved from the lake was found in dry leaves near the wedding gazebo by the Pavilion.
Most of the turtles have been caught from the banks of the lake.
“The way that lake is drying, there’s just really no way to get out by the water and actually grab them,” Baker said. “I mean, the mud is like 6 feet deep out there, and you can’t go chasing turtles.”
In fact, the city has posted signs warning the public not to walk on the lakebed because even though it appears to be a dry and solid surface, it’s actually quite muddy and unstable.
People are finding more red-eared sliders than pond turtles because most of the native species left months ago.
“They saw the writing on the wall and moved on. These guys travel a lot, while the red-eared sliders just kinda sat around and waited for the water to return.”
When the lake continued to evaporate, the sliders likely moseyed on up into the vegetation that surrounds the lake.
“If they have a damp spot, they will hunker down in those areas,” Baker said.
He said he doesn’t think there are any more turtles in the lakebed but guesses more are hiding in the brush.
The zoo, which houses 35 turtle species from around the world, plans to keep the turtles off exhibit. That’s because they won’t do well with public interaction.
“The wild ones are kinda squirrelly,” Baker said. “Someone could knock on the window or something, and they won’t eat for a week.”
The other turtle species, including rare kinds from Vietnam, are kept in the zoo’s exhibits or are housed in the back away from public view in their own private tubs.
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