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Atascadero’s Charles Paddock Zoo expands turtle program

Charles Paddock Zoo unveils new Turtle Lab

Charles Paddock Zoo Director Alan Baker and Atascadero officials celebrate the opening of the zoo's new Turtle Lab on Friday, Dec. 18, 2015.
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Charles Paddock Zoo Director Alan Baker and Atascadero officials celebrate the opening of the zoo's new Turtle Lab on Friday, Dec. 18, 2015.

With the goal of conserving and protecting endangered species and educating the public, Atascadero’s Charles Paddock Zoo has unveiled its new Turtle Lab, where it will work with several threatened species of turtles and tortoises.

The zoo has about 100 turtles, including endangered species from Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), China, and South America.

It plans to open a “Turtles in Trouble” exhibit early in 2016, showcasing the work that’s being done in the off-limits Turtle Lab. It also plans to create an educational series next year that highlights the diversity of turtles and provides information about the black market turtle trade and the Asian turtle crisis.

The zoo chose to focus on turtles because of its ongoing commitment to conservation — and because they’re a particularly vulnerable species.

In Vietnam, the farmers used to just put the turtles aside when they were in the fields. But then they realized they could sell them to the Chinese and support whole villages.

Zoo director Alan Baker

Zoo director Alan Baker said that turtles and tortoises, which have existed for tens of millions of years, are fascinating creatures. Many live until the age of 80 or 100; some tortoises can live up to 175 years, he said.

The zoo houses species such as the Pacific pond turtle, native to the West Coast and Mexico; the Annam leaf turtle from Central Vietnam; and several turtles from the Cuora genus of about 12 species. The turtle lab keeps a warm temperature of about 82 degrees, accommodating their natural habitat.

“We’re researching the feeding habits and seasonal behavior, and we’re breeding some of these turtles,” Baker said.

China has heavily contributed to the depletion of certain turtle species because they’re eaten there or used for medicine.

Other Asian countries have sold turtles for profit.

330Number of turtle species in the world (half of which are threatened with extinction)

“In Vietnam, the farmers used to just put the turtles aside when they were in the fields,” Baker said. “But then they realized they could sell them to the Chinese and support whole villages. In a short amount of time, populations of species began to dwindle.”

For the mega-rich in China, eating a rare turtle evolved into a show of status.

There are around 330 recognized living turtle species worldwide and more than half are now threatened with extinction.

The Atascadero zoo’s turtles range from tiny creatures in their infancy to broad-shelled, 300 pounders.

The zoo is in contact with federal agencies that send the animals to the zoo to live, as well as scientists who study them in Asian countries and elsewhere to determine their habits and dietary needs.

“We don’t know much about some of them because we’re not even sure where exactly they’ve lived in the wild,” Baker said.

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