Casa del Tortuga: Kennewick woman raises, sells and rescues tortoises

By Dori O'Neal, Tri-City HeraldDecember 15, 2013 

Terese Meyer of Kennewick has a menagerie of pets that enrich her life and nurture her soul.

There are the usual warm, fuzzy human companions -- a dog and two cats.

Then there are the tortoises and turtles -- several dozen of 'em.

She's a champion for these slow-moving and gentle reptiles, which are misunderstood and vulnerable to neglect. She doesn't keep track of how many she has, but knows each one by name.

"I really try to stay away from counting my tortoises," Meyer said. "It just turns them into a number, and I'm not into (raising them) for the numbers. I'm in it for quality of life."

There is no scientific difference between tortoises and turtles, she said, and she refers to them all generically as tortoises. They do look and act different, however.

"Tortoises live primarily on land, and they have elephant-like feet, making them very poor swimmers," she said. "Turtles, on the other hand, live mostly in water, have webbed feet like a frog and come on land to bask in the sun and lay eggs."

Casa del Tortuga

Meyer raises four species -- red-footed, sulcata and Greek Ibera tortoises, and Eastern box turtles -- in her backyard, where she and her husband, David Spaulding, built a garage-sized structure to house her growing family.

Their insulated home, dubbed Casa del Tortuga, is heated in the winter and has a giant picture window so they get as much light as possible during the darker months.

The casa is kept at a balmy temperature. Each species has its own level of comfort. And though none of them are desert dwellers, each pen is equipped with UVA/UVB light conducive to each species requirements, she said.

The nursery is a separate part of the dwelling. The males and females are separated, except during mating season. Each species mates and lays eggs at different times of the year, Meyer said. The reptiles abandon their eggs once they are laid, and Meyer steps in to incubate them.

During warmer months, they get fresh air and sunshine in fenced outdoor housing covering one-third of an acre. Her red-footed tortoises, about 2 feet long and weighing about 10 pounds, are free to wander and graze.

"The big boys love having full run of the yard," Meyer said. "And they travel every inch of the yard, too, every chance they get."

Tortoises and turtles are omnivorous, eating fruits, vegetables, worms and insects, depending on the species.

The Eastern box turtle is a hunter, with an extra vertebra in its neck allowing it to bend and twist its head. That's helpful in hunting prey, she said. They have a large area with a compost pile, logs, shrubs and water ponds. The environment attracts bugs and worms that they eat.

Tortoises drink water through their nostrils, can control their own heartbeats and live an average of more than 100 years, because their organs don't deteriorate with age like human organs do, she said.

"Tortoises also see color, and red really seems to attract (the red-foots), which could be why they like strawberries so much," she said.

They love neck scratches

Meyer has rescued a handful of tortoises in years past, though she doesn't solicit them, she said.

"If they come my way, I help as much as I can, but rescuing is hard because there's always a sad story behind it," Meyer said. "I know I can't help them all, but feel its my social responsibility to help when I can."

She's only lost one rescued tortoise in the past two decades, she said. Usually, they suffer from malnutrition because their previous owners were given incorrect information about their care and feeding.

"It's why I make it my mission in life that anyone who buys a tortoise from me has all the correct information about how to care for them," she said.

Meyer works in communications for Washington River Protection Solutions and spends about 20 hours a week caring for her group of tortoises, called a "bale."

She bought her first, Mervis, more than 20 years ago. Since then, she's studied and researched their care and has a library of books to prove it.

She sells her tortoises, but not to just anyone, she said. The smaller ones start at $100, with larger ones as much as $1,000, though she claims she would never sell her big ones.

"I am not a mass breeder, and I'm very picky who I sell to," Meyer said. "I interview people thoroughly and if I don't get a good feeling they will take care of one of my brood, then I won't sell to that person."

The personality of a tortoise is as unique as it is quirky, Meyer adds. They prefer a solitary life and their resiliency and ability to survive is one of the things she loves best about them.

"Their species is almost the exact same as it was when they were hanging around with dinosaurs," Meyer said. "They evolved to be almost indestructible. Once they get to be adults, they have very few natural predators."

Humans are the most notorious predator, she said.

"To me, they are incredible animals who illustrate the power of nature by evolving into the perfect creature," Meyer said. "I love their personalities, all are different with quirks. They don't need friendship (to be happy and content), but I've never known one to refuse a neck scratch."

Meyer knows most of her tortoises will no doubt outlive her. She made provisions in her will that her family will go to rescue agencies where they will be safe after her death, she said.

"Hopefully, that won't be for a long time yet," she said.

-- Online: www.northwesttortoise.com

-- Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; doneal@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @dorioneal

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