By Nastacia Voisin • Of the News-Register • 

Slow movers find a haven

Marcus Larson/News-Register
Marcus Larson/News-RegisterJosette Thelian feeds apple chucks to a rescued Russian tortoise. Thelian and her husband, Tony, have created a backyard turtle and tortoise sanctuary.
Marcus Larson/News-RegisterCustom-made enclosures in Tony and Josette Thelians’ McMinnville backyard are home to seven turtle and tortoise species. The couple operate Slow Movers Resort Turtle and Tortoise Rescue.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Marcus Larson/News-Register

Five years ago, they adopted a Sucata tortoise named Baby, and were soon inundated by people begging them for advice or hoping to rid themselves of their own shelled pets. Out of love for the creatures, the Thelians distributed advice as best they could and, when all else failed, began taking in unwanted reptiles.

They now run the Slow Movers Resort Turtle and Tortoise Rescue out of their backyard.

Managing the “resort” has become a full-time job for Josette. On top of caring for the animals, she participates in three education events a year, fields a steady stream of advice calls and tries her best to find new homes for her rescue projects. She also works with Fish and Wildlife, providing temporary housing for native species being rehabilitated.

“I bit off more than I could chew, really,” she said.  But she finds it hard to turn away someone else’s unwanted turtles and tortoises, about 60 percent of which arrive suffering from illness or injury.

“These are creatures that need love and care,” she said. “They not here just to be bred and sold.”

There’s a sizable market for turtles and tortoises. The latter can bring more than $2,000 at adult size.

But the number of animals on the market outstrips the amount of caring homes for them in the end. People adopt hatchlings, thinking they make cute, exotic pets, and find there’s a lot of work involved.

“People don’t realize what they’re doing,” Thelian said. “They think, ‘If I put food in their tank, they’ll be fine.’ And that’s not the case.”

Uneducated owners, she said, inadvertently neglect their reptiles by relegating them to undersized habitats, unhealthy diets and wrong environmental conditions.

Several species of tortoise quickly grow to unwieldy weights and sizes. They require sustained socialization through lifespans ranging to 160 years. And when they need vet care, it won’t come cheap.

Faced with tortoises that have taken ill or become unmanageably large, owners try to get rid of them. With many sanctuaries at or over capacity, they may resort to online sales or releases into the wild, neither which tend to produce good results.

This is why rescues like Slow Movers Resort are essential, as both sanctuaries and information resources.

“A huge part of it is education,” Thelian said. “I want people to understand that when they get a tortoise or a turtle, that is a lifetime commitment. These are not throw-away pets.”

She tries to find new homes for her charges, working with potential owners to ensure they’re properly educated and equipped.

“I’m very picky about where they’re going,” she said. She said she’s been known to insist on home visits before approving adoptions.

“One of my biggest passions is making sure that these animals will never go through the same treatment again,” she said.

The resort is working toward nonprofit status, which would enable it to solicit and accept tax-deductible donations. But for now, adoption fees running $20 to $100 per animal and donations are only covering about 20 percent of the operation’s costs, forcing the Thelians to kick in about $6,000 a year out of their own pockets.

The Thelians have cordoned off portions of their property to create elaborate turtles and tortoise enclosures complete with UVA or UBV lighting. Inside, they have carved out space for smaller turtles and a collection of bearded dragons.

Caring for the rescues takes up most of Thelian’s time, as even healthy animals require daily attention.

“They’re very social creatures,” she said. “It’s very time-consuming.”

She is currently preparing for the annual Blessing of the Animals event hosted by St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. It is set for 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, June 7, in the First Federal parking lot at 118 N.E. Third St., McMinnville.

Owners are invited to bring animal companions of all kinds for blessing by priest Kathleen Galvin. A dog groomer, two vets and some Homeward Bound Pets volunteers also plan to participate.

Thelian will bring several of her creatures, in case she can make connections with some potential adopters. And if not, she’s OK with that, too.

“These are like my children,” she said. “It’s something that I’ll always want to do, no matter what.”

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