Shell Game 

Ravens? Yahoos? Disease? After shelling out $100 million, you'd think we'd know what is wiping out the California desert tortoise.

I. The Rescuers

To reach Bay Area Turtle and Tortoise Rescue, drive to Castro Valley, make a few cuts through suburban side streets, and then park in front of Gary and Ginger Wilfong's home. It's in their backyard.

The Wilfongs have been taking in shelled reptiles for more than a decade and, love them as they do, truth be told, they sometimes tire of the responsibility. Many types of turtles can live beyond a hundred years, and when owners purchase the cute little critters in pet stores -- usually at the behest of a pleading child -- they seldom consider the retirement plan. "People call us all the time, asking, 'Do you want my turtle?'" Ginger said one recent afternoon as she walked through her cluttered home. "I say, 'No, I don't want your turtle, but I'll take it.' If it's between giving it to me and setting it loose into the wild, then I'll take it. I have a policy: I'll take in any turtle."

She headed toward the sliding glass door leading to the patio, maneuvering around piles of gadgets left out by her electrician husband, accompanied by the crowing of two parrots from the living room. "Now watch this," she said, readying both hands on the door handle. "As soon as I begin to open it, they'll feel the vibration and jump into the water." Outside, a dozen red-eared sliders lounged along the rim of a three-hundred-gallon pond Gary had installed a few years back. The moment Ginger used all of her five-foot frame to yank open the door, which really could've used a little grease, turtle tails and hind legs flipped up and disappeared into the dark water. "See?" she said. "They know we're coming. They're smart guys. They can feel it."

Over the phone, Ginger had estimated there were more than 200 turtles roaming her yard. But counting the sliders now bobbing up to the pond's surface, that still left more than 180 to account for. "Okay, okay," she said, sensing it was time to deliver the payoff. "Now let's take a look at the big guys."

We walked toward a tall wooden gate where she unlatched a hook and swung the door wide open. Before us stretched a half-acre of green lawn, mud puddles, boxes of shrubbery lining the fences and, in the middle of the plot, a large shed that looked like a greenhouse. Taking the first step into the silent field, the mood was placid, eerily still. Then, slowly, the eyes and bodies of dinosaurs began emerging from the background into clear focus, like a scene from Jurassic Park. Ginger had guessed correctly. There were turtles everywhere.

In the distance a green sulcata that could have been mistaken for a parked VW Bug lifted its head momentarily to gaze at its visitors. Another mound of tortoiseshell moved slightly, craned its short neck toward the gate, then returned to its afternoon snack of cabbage balls. A smaller guy, the size of an army helmet, rambled along a path of stepping stones up to our feet and hissed. "That's Lawrence," Ginger said, chuckling. "He's probably forty years old. He's a real bulldozer. He'll knock Gary down if Gary's not paying attention."

The Wilfongs have inherited members of more than 25 species from all over the world, an amazing tally considering the only species indigenous to the Bay Area is the common pond turtle. When US Customs officials make a bust at the port, hauling in exotic reptiles, they call the Wilfongs, as do Parks District managers who come across a Russian tortoise traipsing through Tilden. The couple neither breeds nor sells turtles for profit, nor do they pander for donations. They simply work as a liaison for the reptiles, easing their unnatural transition from the wild to captivity. "I had to stop naming them," Ginger later confessed, sitting at her kitchen table. "I realized once I gave them a name that meant they were never leaving. But with some of these guys, they're around here so long, you just end up giving them a name."


II. The Auditors

According to scientists, at least, one species the Wilfongs deal with regularly may not be around so long. Although the couple took in its first turtle in 1961, it wasn't until 1989, Gary says, "when we really went crazy." That was the year California's few tortoise rehabilitators were suddenly given a whole new level of responsibility: Desert biologists in Southern California reported that a deadly virus was sweeping the state's only other indigenous species, the Mojave Desert tortoise. Scientists had already been claiming the desert was suffering rapid habitat degradation at the hands of off-road vehicle enthusiasts and the appetites of wandering cattle herds allowed to graze at will; this grim new discovery only seemed to punctuate their findings.

Acting on the scientists' information, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared "emergency status" for the desert tortoise, and put it on the Endangered Species List, triggering the massive protections that accompany the designation. Lawmakers and government land managers jumped into overdrive, pushing legislation to outlaw the harming or poaching of desert tortoises and roping off millions of acres of desert across Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Recreational desert users were ushered out of the reptile's path, and when they protested, were cast as villains in the Save-the-Tortoise narrative.

Yet despite the restrictions, more and more tortoises were turning up sick, and no one knew it better than the Wilfongs. With sniffling noses, puffy eyelids, and swollen tongues, the animals arrived via Fish and Wildlife by the dozen.

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