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Disappearance of Temecula golf course turtles worries some residents

The turtles sunned themselves on the banks of a pond in middle of a golf course.

It had be a nice reptilian life for more than 20 years.

Passers-by on the popular walking trail along the edge of the golf course loved to watch the red-eared sliders bask in the summer heat. The shelled creatures would poke their heads out of the water, paddle to the side and crawl onto the grass. People tossed food and took videos. Some estimated there were 80 to 100 turtles living in the little pond.

All that changed in July.

That’s when the drain became clogged, the pump broke and the man-made pond began to dry up. The residents said most of the turtles disappeared. The residents called a turtle expert who said those turtles are in grave danger. The golf course director of operations said the residents, no matter their good intentions, have created an issue where none exists.

“All the turtles are safe,” said Al Labotski. “We haven’t done anything wrong. These are false accusations. We’ve been trained to think of the environment first … (The residents) refuse to listen to anything we have to say.”

What happened to the Temecula turtles who live at The Legends Golf Club at Temeku Hills has become a raging dispute among homeowners, turtle advocates and the owners of the course. The pond has been refilled in recent days, but the residents say most of the turtles are still missing.

Either the turtles sensed their pending doom and burrowed deep into the pond sludge to die or workers at the golf course saved them by moving them to another pond out of the view of the residents.

“If we wanted to find them, we would dig in the sludge and we would find dead turtles,” said Val Graham, a Temecula resident who people began calling “Turtle Val.” She is part of a group of about 20 residents who have protested with signs, called animal control and signed a petition begging for someone to do something to save the turtles.

One of the residents is called “Ninja Turtle Jen” and there’s “Turtle Betty” and “Turtle Rhonda.”

The Friends of the Valley (animal control) has sent representatives to the pond several times and didn’t find any turtles in distress. But, residents say, that’s because the turtles buried themselves in the muck at the bottom of the pond.

According to residents, no dead turtles have been found. But they say they’re sure almost all of the turtles are dead. None would admit it on the record, but some residents have waded into the waters and pulled turtles out.

The golf course said anyone going into the pond is trespassing. The police have been notified, but no citations or arrests have occurred.

“We have not seen one dead turtle,” Labotski said. He said a maintenance crew carefully moved “about a dozen” turtles to an adjacent section of the pond (out of view of the walkway).

“We migrated them, and they will migrate back on their own,” Labotski said.

The residents dispute that claim. They’ve been watching the pond, and they say they’ve seen no effort to remove or transfer any turtles.

Theresa O’Donnell of the San Diego Turtle and Tortoise Society said she volunteered to go into the pond to rescue all the turtles. Her plan would have sent the turtles to Gzsafaripark, a reptile rescue sanctuary in Anaheim.

O’Donnell is worried about the numbers. Residents say they have seen 80 to 100 turtles. Resident Rhonda Conroy said she counted 39 turtles sunning themselves at the same time one day this August.

The golf course said the number is closer to one dozen total.

O’Donnell said the extreme heat forces the turtles underground. “When it’s hot, they bury themselves in the mud,” O’Donnell said. “That’s why you don’t see them.”

O’Donnell was ready for a big rescue effort.

“I was denied permission,” O’Donnell said. “They didn’t allow rescue groups to come out and help them.”

That makes the residents suspicious.

“Ninja Turtle” Jen Aiello has been the most vocal of the residents.

“I don’t understand why they wouldn’t take free help,” Aiello said. “The turtles will suffocate and you will never know they were there. My hope is they fix the drain … in the meantime, a lot of the turtles are going to die. It is horrible. It is devastating to me.

“To say they have saved one turtle is a blatant lie.”

Labotski said the residents overreacted. There was no reason to have an outside group come in for a rescue, he said, because the golf course maintenance workers could handle it themselves.

“We already had a plan to migrate them in place,” Labotski said.

On a recent Tuesday, two turtles could be seen swimming in the pond. Their shells were covered in gray slime.

“They’re in poor shape,” Conroy said.

O’Donnell said she’s worked about “parasites and disease” among the turtles who didn’t bury themselves.

“I feel they are threatened,” O’Donnell said.

Source: Orange County Register

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