City Beat

Huge rescue operation underway to save turtles in McKinley Park pond

Turtles and ducks compete for space in the McKinley Park pond in Sacramento. City officials and volunteers will remove the turtles as they prepare to clean and rehab the pond.
Turtles and ducks compete for space in the McKinley Park pond in Sacramento. City officials and volunteers will remove the turtles as they prepare to clean and rehab the pond. rlillis@sacbee.com

A mass evacuation is about to begin in this city. It involves huge holding tanks, specialized traps, various arms of government and a small army of volunteers.

They’re removing the turtles from the McKinley Park pond.

The city has been working toward this moment for months as it prepares to empty, clean and rehab the dank pond in East Sacramento. But before that work can begin, a turtle population estimated by some to be as high as 120 has to be removed. The city is also waiting for the baby geese and ducks who live in the pond to be big enough to leave on their own before the project starts.

But let’s focus on the turtles. As the evacuation date nears – likely starting this week – Chris Conlin, the city’s parks director, wants to make one thing very, very clear: The city is going to try to save the turtles.

“We’re the parks department,” he said. “We don’t go out killing animals.”

OK, so here’s your chance, future herpetologists of the world. Many of the turtles pulled from the McKinley pond will be available for adoption at the city animal shelter.

That’s because neighborhood volunteer Judy McClaver and Gina Knepp, the animal shelter’s director, have taken charge. McClaver speaks for the ducks, geese and turtles, and she rode the city to come up with a plan that protected the critters.

“Our society is encroaching on wildlife and we need to do everything we can for it,” McClaver said Thursday, looking over the pond she’s monitored as a volunteer since 2012.

Knepp ordered two 700-gallon farm troughs – the kind that cows and horses drink from – to house the turtles. She plans to install a filtration system like you’d find in a pool or fish tank and keep the turtles in a protected area behind the Front Street shelter. This week, she’ll be joined by McClaver and other volunteers at the pond, armed with what are called “hoop traps” baited with sardines. The turtles should go nuts.

No one is entirely sure how many turtles are in the pond. But they do know the pond is populated with western pond and red-eared slider turtles. The western pond turtles are native and will likely be returned to the pond after the $220,000 rehab project is completed later this year.

The red-eared sliders, however, are invasive troublemakers. They’re the species of turtle commonly found in pet stores. They’re also commonly dumped into ponds by people who buy them at pet stores and grow tired of caring for them, which was likely the case in McKinley Park.

Some are the size of sand dollars. Others, as Knepp said, are the size of dinner plates.

The turtles are everywhere in the pond, diving and dipping in the murky green water as they compete with more than a dozen geese and more than 50 ducks for space and food.

Knepp has orchestrated some interesting projects before, such as rescuing 60 cats from a home. This one, she said, “is a little different.”

She said some people and turtle organizations have already lined up to adopt many of the red-eared sliders. The key: making sure people know how to care for the animals so they don’t end up back in a city pond. “They can be a huge commitment,” Knepp said. If you’re interested in taking one of the turtles home, call 311.

In the meantime, McClaver will be out at the pond every day, watching as the goslings and ducklings grow and making sure no one harasses the animals. She’s hung fliers and sent out emails trying to pressure the city into waiting a few months to clean the pond, making sure none of the birds are harmed. The city said it never intended to start the work until the ducks and geese were ready.

“So far, the wildlife is safe,” McClaver said. “That’s all I can say.”

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