Last week, a man biking by Lake Merritt found a creature that is currently listed as number 93 on the world’s 100 worst invasive species. So of course he brought it to Children’s Fairyland.

I don’t know when people began bringing us animals—stray, no longer wanted, grown too big to fit into an apartment, rescued from a Chinatown market—but it’s been happening for decades. And although we are rarely able to “save” or keep these animals ourselves, we are in touch with many lovely animal rescue groups intimately acquainted with the care of all sorts of animals, from exotic birds to injured raccoons and more.

The aforementioned biker had found a hemys scripta elegans, also known as a red-eared slider turtle. Native to much of the mid- to south-central United States, it is an invasive species in California, Oregon, Washington and many other states. It’s currently illegal in California to sell these turtles or release them into the wild because they are prodigiously talented at adapting and breeding, which negatively impacts indigenous freshwater turtle species.

If you’re of a certain age like me, you may remember buying red-eared sliders during the 1950s and 60s, when they were sold at five-and-dime stores for as little as 25 cents and were commonly known as dime-store turtles. Although this era was the heyday for the most popular turtle in the pet trade, between 1980 and 1997, more than 52 million individuals were exported from the United States to foreign markets. Millions went to British kids as a direct result of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” craze. (Britain banned their import in 1998.)

If you find yourself as we did with a stray turtle and no clue, I recommend that you do what we did: contact Gary and Ginger Wilfong, a.k.a. the Bay Area Turtle and Tortoise Rescue, in Castro Valley. Gary and Ginger graciously accepted our stray, which they believe to be 10 to 15 years old, based on its 11-inch size. Red-eared sliders can live up to 30 years.

The Wilfongs receive an average of two to three sliders a week. Ours was shipped out with seven others via UPS overnight, each in its own little pillowcase and stacked in layers of Styrofoam. Right now they are all enjoying their new lives in a large man-made pond in Oakdale that does not allow for escape. According to Gary, when red-eared sliders are allowed to invade a body of water in the wild, they breed with every female turtle regardless of species. “It’s like releasing Hugh Hefner in a harem,” he says. The eggs that result from these unions are nonviable, which gives the red-ears a distinct survival advantage. So do their aggression and size, which assure dominance in securing food and basking and nesting sites.

On their quarter-acre of land in Castro Valley, the Wilfongs currently keep 115 turtles and tortoises; the rest are rescues. Their reptiles enjoy a rich life: there’s greenhouse heated to a comfortable 75 degrees in winter, and the Wilfongs admit to hosting a number of them in their home at night.

A 93-year-old woman recently gave the Wilfongs a tortoise she’s owned since before World War II. It’s estimated at between 80 and 100 years old. They call him “Old Man.” The Wilfongs are also official registrars of the threatened desert tortoise and they work with zoos around the world. They also sell certain species.

Gary and Ginger have a soft spot in their hearts for Children’s Fairyland. When their children, who are now in their 40s, were small, they brought them to our park “all the time.” Gary recalls attending boat races at Lake Merritt in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, when the lake contained fresh water, turtles abounded. “Our” stray red-eared slider would not have been able to tolerate the lake’s current salinity.

About their reptile-themed life, Ginger says cheerfully, “There’s a lot of nuts like us!” Not so crazy, really, if you remember the ancient fable about the reptile and the mammal. We know who’ll win the race, and we very much appreciate the good work Gary and Ginger do.

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2 Responses

  1. Turtle2Pond

    Red-eared Slider turtles are a man-made invasive species which are mass produced on farms to serve the pet and food industry. The CA Dept of Fish and Wildlife overturned an importation ban into the state and then abandons the animals in times of need as seen in the case of the Overfelt Gardens Park turtles (multiple species including fully aquatic Soft-shells):

    Thus, the animal is in a lose-lose situation created by human greed. State and local agencies continue to abandon these animals and have no problem in seeing these animals die in the park’s parking lot, run over on the street or due to dehydration. Your tax $ at work.

  2. Eric Mills

    It’s likely that this turtle was purchased from one of the many live animal food markets in Oakland Chinatown, and (illegally) released into Lake Merritt, a death sentence. This is a freshwater species, and Lake Merritt is mostly saltwater. The turtles quickly suffer and die from kidney failure. (California has only ONE native freshwater turtle, the Western Pond TURTLE.)

    California annually imports an estimated TWO MILLION non-native American bullfrogs, and 300,000-to-400,000 freshwater turtles for human consumption. All these animals are diseased and parasitized, though it’s illegal to sell such products. There’s nil-enforcement of the weak laws on the book, and “anything goes” in Chinatown, putting the environment and the public health at risk. Most of these animals are kept stacked four and five deep, no food, often without water, then routinely butchered while fully-conscious. A true “crime against nature.” (Tour the markets, if in doubt: the blocks around 7th-10th Streets, between Broadway and Harrison, downtown Oakland.)

    We’ve been trying for 20+ years to have these imports banned. You can help. WRITE TO: Chuck Bonham, Director, Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, 1416 Ninth Street, Sacramento, CA 95814; email –

    Thanks for caring. And kudos to the Wilfongs.

    Eric Mills, coordinator
    email –


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