July 17, 2000
Jerry Novak poses with one of the tortoises he has rescued.
Staff photo by Bronwyn Wilson.
by Bronwyn Wilson, senior staff reporter
Looking like Volkswagens, the animals park their enormous dome-like shells in the sun.
Bonnie, Clyde, and Big Bertha are African spurred tortoises, named for the spur-like plating on their thighs. They aren't the size of a VW, actually--but they're huge, just the same. With shells nearly two feet wide, these giants can tip the scales up to as much as 100 pounds. The tortoises live with Jerry Novak and his wife, Elizabeth, in Kenmore. And when they're not catching rays, the big tortoises sleep in a cozy heated house that Jerry built especially for them.
However, this isn't all. Many other species of tortoises and turtles make their home with the Novaks, as well. And due to the fact that tortoises live on land and turtles like water, Jerry accommodates both. The pig-nosed soft-shell turtles are provided a tropical pond in the Novak entryway. Here, the turtles, which resemble small sea turtles with a pig snout, paddle around. Should Jerry step beside the pond, the pig-nosed turtles poke their heads out of the water. "Lunch?" they seem to wonder, and Jerry feeds them dried food from his hands.
In the dining room, a pink-bellied sidekick turtle plays in a glass tank. Jerry and Elizabeth call him "Smiley," due to his mouth appearing to have a non-stop grin. Down the hall, a tortoise maternity ward is set up where Big Bertha's babies are hatching from eggs, some literally half out of the shell. A few of the babies, no bigger than golf balls, have already hatched and romp healthily in a glass dish where Jerry places them for observation. Also in the room, a few boa constrictors snooze in a large tank, and poison dart frogs hide behind foliage in another one.
"It's like my other full-time job," Jerry says of his extensive reptile family. He holds up a sick ornate box turtle, which waves its arms and legs to show off its regaining strength, though his eyes remain closed. The turtle was practically dead when he first received him. And this is how Jerry acquires many of his tortoises.
Pet owners don't always know how to care for their tortoise or turtle when it's sick, and many veterinarians aren't equipped to care for the exotic animals, either. The owners turn to pet shops, friends, and the Herpetological Society for advice, and this is when Jerry Novak is usually recommended. Knocking at Jerry's door, the owners leave their sick or injured pets with the Novaks until they recuperate. But some tortoises stay and set up housekeeping.
"I just like helping the turtles. If I don't do it, who's going to?" Jerry says, who has done extensive study on antibiotics and healthy foods to know how to care for the sick reptiles. His interest in tortoises goes way back.
"My mom found a snapshot of me sitting on a Galapagos tortoise at Knott's Berry Farm when I was one year old," he says.
He also explains that as a child he had, like most boys, an interest in dinosaurs. And he fondly remembers a special childhood pet, a desert tortoise named "Sam."
Now, as an adult, all tortoises are special to Jerry--from his African pancake tortoises, who are truly "flat as a pancake," to North American wood turtles, Eastern box turtles, a 50-year-old Russian tortoise, and spotted turtles with shells decorated by nature in yellow polka dots.
But Jerry has one turtle that arrived at his doorstep which wasn't decorated naturally, but with an oil-based paint on its shell. He emphasizes that painting a turtle's shell is not good for the animal. "It glues the seams of the shell and doesn't allow the seams to open up and grow," he says.
Jerry takes his turtles and tortoises to the local elementary schools, giving talks on how to care for them. He says he also brings his snakes, so kids can have a good impression of the creature which, in Jerry's opinion, has been given a bad rap.
In addition to this, he's involved with the Western Pond Turtle Project in Washington, a cooperative effort between the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Woodland Park Zoo to help save the western pond turtle, which is becoming extinct in the state of Washington. Significant threats are the American Bullfrog and the large-mouth bass, as both consume new hatchlings.
Jerry attaches transmitters to the endangered turtles after trapping and weighing them. The females are then monitored, and when they leave the water to nest, the eggs are covered with a wire cage to protect them from predators. The eggs are then allowed to incubate and hatch naturally, and hatchlings are collected in the fall. After nine months, the turtles are released back into the wild, either into the Columbia Gorge or a site south of Olympia.
But saving turtles and talking about tortoises are only part of it. Jerry enjoys his pets' personalities. Though most of their antics are related to food, one of his tortoises, Tina, loves having her back scratched. "She does a boogie because she likes it," he says.
Jerry wants people to know that tortoises and turtles will live a long life if taken care of properly. They need to eat the right food and have sunlight and exercise.
And what does Elizabeth Novak think of her husband's hobby? She smiles and says, "He had only one snake and one turtle when we were dating. I had no idea what I was getting into."
For further information on the Western Pond Turtle Project in Washington, call the Woodland Park Zoo Turtle Hotline at 206-615-1334.