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Rare turtles and tortoises seek safe haven in Atascadero 

–When an out of control wildland fire threatens, where do you go with hundreds of rare and endangered turtles and tortoises? Well, Atascadero Historic City Hall of course!

Earlier this week, with wildland fires raging across Ventura and Los Angeles counties, thousands of residents and visitors were evacuated. The largest of the Southern California wildfires, over 132,000 acre Thomas Fire, has spanned about 206 square miles in Ventura County, and at one point had surrounded the community of Ojai. Most of the Ojai Valley was under a mandatory evacuation order.

When the Thomas Fire threatened the Turtle Conservancy facility in Ojai, hundreds of rare and endangered specimens from over 30 species of tortoises and turtles had to be quickly evacuated to avoid catastrophe, including ploughshare tortoises, baby snake-necked turtles, radiated tortoises, golden coin turtles and a nearly 400 pound Galapagos tortoise, which took five strong men to load up. A caravan of fully loaded trucks headed northbound on 101 to Atascadero, and the unusual guests were made safely welcome at City Hall.

The Conservancy was able to evacuate the bulk of the animals from the sanctuary, including the most endangered species, but a few remained in ponds that they couldn’t get to in time. Several Conservancy employees stayed with the turtles against evacuation orders in hopes to protect them.

Why Atascadero? The Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero is well known among fellow American Zoological Association (AZA) accredited facilities as being committed to conservation and in aiding in the long-term research and propagation of turtle and tortoise species through the zoo’s Turtle Lab, designed specifically for that purpose in the hopes of helping save these animals from extinction.

The Turtle Conservancy is dedicated to protecting threatened turtles and tortoises and their habitats worldwide, and to promoting their appreciation by people everywhere. The Conservancy preserves critical ecosystems and wild lands. Their conservation breeding program includes 35 species of turtles and tortoises, 14 of which are on the “Top 40 Most Endangered” list, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group.

Turtle Conservancy Chief Operating Officer, Dr. Paul Gibbons and Charles Paddock Zoo Director Alan Baker have a long professional association through the AZA and mutual interest in protecting and preserving all species of turtles and tortoises. When confronted with a “turtle evac” emergency, Dr. Gibbons reached out to Director Baker for assistance. Working with City Manager Rachelle Rickard, the City of Atascadero was able to provide a temporary secure and safe haven for the animals.

As soon as the imminent fire danger near the Conservancy facility has passed, the mandatory evacuation orders have been lifted and the City’s very unusual guests are able to return home, they will be loaded back onto trucks from their warm and secure meeting rooms here at Historic City Hall to make the trek home again. City Manager Rachelle Rickard says that the City of Atascadero “was very proud to be able to assist in the rescue efforts and to provide a temporary home for the turtles. We were happy that these unusual guests were able to call Atascadero “home”, even for a short while.”

Visitors to the Charles Paddock Zoo can enjoy the zoo’s collection of endangered turtles on exhibit including Radiated Tortoises, Spider Tortoises and Big Headed Turtles. The zoo is extremely proud to be home to six rare Radiated Tortoises, which are considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful tortoises and are endangered, mainly due to poaching and destruction of their habitat.

Over 200 animals call the Charles Paddock Zoo home, including red pandas, monkeys, meerkats, parrots, a Malayan Tiger, a variety of reptiles and more! For more information about the Zoo, please visit the website at or call (805) 461-5080.

And be sure to follow the Turtle Conservancy on Facebook, Twitter and on their website at

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About the author: News Staff

The news staff of the Paso Robles Daily News wrote or edited this story from local contributors and press releases. The news staff can be reached at