A sanctuary for turtles

McGough Nature Park offers a chance to see and feed more than a half dozen different types of turtles.

By RITA FARLOW, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

In college, my roommates and I bought a pet box turtle and named him Rufus Xavier Sasparilla after a character from Schoolhouse Rock!

When one of us, a biology major, declared Rufus was ailing, we decided he'd be better off living out his final days free of his plexiglass habitat. We set him free in the woods that flanked New River in southwest Virginia.

I thought of Rufus recently during a visit to the turtle pond at McGough Nature Park.

The pond is chock-full of more than a half dozen types of turtles, such as Florida softshells, Florida chicken turtles and red-eared sliders.

As I clomped across the wooden planks of the overlook, turtles came swimming toward me in droves.

Tammy Peterson, who oversees the city's nature parks, said the city has never stocked the pond. Many of the original turtles were released by their owners, just like Rufus.

Over time, the turtle pond grew in popularity and people started bringing in reptiles from all over the county.

Now a sign warns people not to use it as a dumping ground for unwanted turtles.

Peterson says she once had to stop an uninformed do-gooder from putting a gopher tortoise into the pond. Gopher tortoises live on land and can sink under their own weight in water.

Another kind soul risked a mean bite to bring in a snapping turtle found by the side of the road.

"They mean well," Peterson said.

Kind of like the people who would feed the turtles their favorite snacks.

"People were feeding them Doritos, M&Ms, everything," Peterson said.

To manage that problem, the city started offering turtle food. For a quarter, you can buy a handful of pellets to feed to the prehistoric-looking reptiles who crane their leathery necks out of the water, looking for a handout.

If only Rufus had it so good.

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