By Erik Derr (staff@latinospost.com) | First Posted: May 23, 2013 02:45 PM EDT
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(Photo : Reuters)

Today is World Turtle Day, and six-year-old Benjamin Lepe says he's not yet met a tortoise in his young life, but he'd like to. He also suggesed he'd be a pretty good owner, if he had the chance to acquire one of his own.

"I know you need to give it air and water. You need to feed it...things like lettuce...you need to give it a place to walk around," Lepe said enthusiastically.

Lepe, who right now says he wants to be a fireman when he grows up, was earlier today visiting Almansor Park, in Alhambra, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, when he was asked about tortoises.

He said his teacher often "talks about turtles and snakes and a whole bunch of animals...spiders and alligators too, he said. "We have to take care of nature."

Lepe was one of about 20 school-aged children interviewed at the park by Latinos Post and asked about World Turtle Day, now in its 13th year and observed every on May 23.

None of the children said they had heard of the annual event, but all of them demonstrated a genuine curiosity about reptiles in general, tortoises and turtles in particular, and a desire, as fellow six-year-old Jenny Susana said, "to save the environment."

Five-year-old David Ramirez producle announced tortoises live on land while turtles "also live on land, but they live in the water."

World Turtle Day was established to help raise public awareness of turtles and tortoises and the importance of protecting the creatures as well as their disappearing habitats around the world. 

The year observance was started up by Southern California-based American Tortoise Rescue, which, advocates for the humane treatment of all animals, including reptiles and since 1990 has placed an estimated 3,000 tortoises and turtles in caring homes.

The nonprofit group also assists law enforcement when undersized or endangered turtles are confiscated and provides information and referrals to those with sick, neglected or abandoned turtles.

"World Turtle Day was started to increase respect and knowledge for the world's oldest creatures," said ATR co-founder Susan Tellem.  "These gentle animals have been around for about 200 million years, yet they are rapidly disappearing as a result of the exotic food industry, habitat destruction, global warming and the cruel pet trade."

Today, said Tellem, she and her rescue colleagues "are seeing smaller turtles coming into the rescue --- meaning that older adults are disappearing from the wild, thanks to the pet trade, and the breeding stock is drastically reduced.  It is a very sad time for turtles and tortoises of the world." 

Data supplied by ATR biologists and other experts predict the total disappearance of tortoise and turtles in the next 50 years unless a concerted effort is made to save them from being wiped out.

Tellem recommends a few small things that she say can nonetheless make a big difference in maintaining the tortoise and turtle populations:

  1. Never buy a turtle or tortoise from a pet shop as it increases demand from the wild.
  2. Never remove turtles or tortoises from the wild unless they are sick or injured.
  3. If a tortoise is crossing a busy street, pick it up and send it in the same direction it was going - if you try to make it go back, it will turn right around again.
  4. Write letters to legislators asking them to keep sensitive habitat preserved or closed to off road vehicles, and to prevent off shore drilling that can lead to more endangered sea turtle deaths.
  5. Report cruelty or illegal sales of turtles and tortoises to your local animal control shelter.
  6. Report the sale of any turtle or tortoise of any kind less than four inches. This is illegal throughout the U.S.

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