Sex education

Don’t be surprised by what you can learn from a turtle

Felice Rood's website is The Turtlerama is Saturday, August 18, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Belle Cooledge Library, 5600 S. Land Park Drive.

My son was 2 years old when my mother-in-law told me that all the sex education he’d ever need was on view in her backyard. It wasn’t what the mother of a toddler wants to hear, but my son is 24 now, and the intimate relationships in Felice Rood’s turtle and tortoise sanctuary are still going strong.

That much was evident on a recent afternoon when I sat in Felice’s yard and watched four Hermann’s tortoises enjoying a picnic of lettuce and apples. Claudia was doing her best to focus on the food, despite the annoying affections of an unnamed male. “Maybe I should call him Sex Maniac,” my mother-in-law observed, and I gave silent thanks that my son never learned about the birds and the bees from tortoises.

Felice has operated a turtle-and-tortoise habitat in her Sacramento backyard for nearly 40 years. A club she founded in 1981 now boasts more than 900 members; the group exchanges information with other turtle and tortoise lovers on the club’s Facebook site. Every August they host a free educational exhibit called the Turtlerama, where the public can learn more about these animals. Felice says one of the biggest mistakes people make is keeping them in the house. “They’re wild animals,” she says, “and to keep them inside is not a good thing.”

As if to prove her point, she showed me one of her current rescue efforts, a tortoise deformed from having previously lived in an aquarium.

While many of her tortoises roam free on the lawn or take shelter in doghouses, the red-eared sliders (water turtles) swim and sun themselves in a pond area lush with water hyacinths, pineapple sage and geraniums. I think it’s repressed guilt and horror that draws me to the sliders whenever I visit. These are the same turtles as the “painted” turtles I’d win at the state fair when I was a kid. The fair turtles were the size of a silver dollar, just babies, and I’d keep them in my bedroom in a plastic bowl with a palm tree and feed them fish food. They always died.

Felice’s water turtles live outside year-round and have shells the size of dinner plates.

The backyard tour isn’t complete without a look at Felice’s two enormous, 30-year-old tortoises, Tarzan and Blondie. There is a prehistoric look to these beautiful animals; and, actually, age is a factor that should be considered if adopting a tortoise. They can outlive a human.

The hot, steamy love enjoyed by Felice’s pets makes procreation inevitable. She can usually catch the females in the act of digging a nest, and she’ll retrieve the eggs and bring them in the house for incubation. In fact, incubation of eggs is another chapter in her encyclopedia of knowledge in the realm, and it was the reason I was visiting that day. I knew she had just hatched a Hermann’s tortoise, and I wanted to hold it.

And I did. I held that tiny, exquisite 4-day-old miracle in the palm of my hand. It was all the sex education I needed.