Lisa Chiapero and Mike Moilanen recently drove from Fort Bragg to Ukiah to visit their close friends Lucy, Pedro and Low Boy, a trio of Sulcata tortoises, native to Africa but fully at home on the exotic Mendocino Coast.
The Sulcatas are very large.
"People buy them," Lisa explains, "when they fit in the palm of your hand, but pretty soon they weigh fifty pounds, and they can become two hundred pounds. Two of my Sulcatas came to me from a couple in Ukiah who told me they were getting older but their Sulcatas just kept getting bigger. They were getting too old to care for them, and I've been caring for them."
Although they look like giant turtles, Sulcatas, unlike turtles, are not aquatic. Sulcatas live out their lives on land, typically hot, dry land.
And there's the rub, one of two rubs.
Fort Bragg is not hot, dry land. It's moist and often chilly.
The second rub, and the rub specific to this case, has to do with housekeeping.
Animal Control wants Lisa to tidy up her premises. When she brings order to her four acres near Fort Bragg's Botanical Gardens the authorities say Lucy, Pedro and Low Boy will be returned to Lisa.
But for now the hardshell trio of mammoth reptiles is confined to the Animal Shelter in Ukiah.
Lisa and Mike, on their visit to see the Sulcatas, were not pleased with the conditions of incarceration.
"They had them in a dirt dog run splattered with paint and styrofoam chips,” Lisa says indignantly. “We walked in with a big bag of grass and dandelions, which is what they like to eat, and the lady at the desk says, ‘They just had broccoli for lunch.’ Broccoli? Broccoli gives them gas,” Lisa, incredulous, snorts. "There’s no place for gas to go in a tortoise shell! They didn’t look good. In Fort Bragg they were happy. You could kick their turds. You can’t kick diarrhea, can you? And that’s what they’ve got now.”
Mike Moilanen, an outspoken Vietnam vet who still suffers post traumatic stress from his harrowing tour of Southeast Asia, filmed the visit to Ukiah. He helps Lisa with her reptile foster home and serves on the board of directors of Lisa's non-profit National Reptile Foundation. Mike sees Lisa every day when he brings his iguanas to Lisa’s place so the iguanas can romp in Lisa’s bathtub. To say he’s sputtering mad about the events leading to the confiscation of the tortoises doesn’t begin to describe his outrage.
“These bastards,” he begins, “well, let me put it this way, let me try to remain calm. I haven’t felt right since it happened. These are service pets, for Christ’s sake. They’ve helped me keep myself together. They help a lot of people. This isn’t fair at all. Lisa takes excellent care of them. This Torsten guy even threatened me. He said he could take my iguanas if I didn’t keep them in a cage while I was driving them here!”
The reference to 'Torsten' is to Torsten Werner, animal control officer. Animal Control has recently been absorbed into the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department. Torsten Werner is a peace officer with a degree in Animal Science. He knows his animals. As do the Animal People he encounters. Lisa and Mike may not have formal diplomas, but they're reptile PhD's.
Disagreements among Animal People are often intense, as they are in this dispute. There is no disagreement, however, that everyone involved in this one is wholly devoted to the welfare of the three Sulcatas.
Dr. Frye of Hopland is an herpetologist of international renown. Deputy Torsten Werner is supervised by Sgt. Poma. Bliss Fisher oversees the Ukiah Animal Shelter and, as everyone knows, Tom Allman is Sheriff of Mendocino County. They all defer to Dr. Frye, who has since modified his anti-Lisa stance.
All of the above have visited Lisa Chiapero's National Reptile Foundation, Fort Bragg.
Deputy Torsten Warner had called Lisa on August 3rd, a Tuesday, to say he’d like to stop by for a visit. And he did, in his spotless uniform, its creases military sharp. It seems that a neighbor had complained about her operation.
“A sex pervert,” as Moilanen bluntly assesses this neighbor. The irascible veteran speculates that the neighbor's pique at being romantically rebuffed by Lisa has caused him to bombard local authorities with complaints about Lisa’s reptile rescue efforts.
On her part, Lisa readily admits that the present condition of her home does not meet House and Garden standards.
“My mother passed away a year ago," Lisa explains. "I don’t have the money to get everything the way it should be overnight. I’m in the middle of re-flooring the living room so things are a little messier than usual.”
The apparent chaos of Lisa’s home, replete with a live-in Noah’s Ark of reptiles and serpents, along with their food and accommodations and Lisa herself, all of them happy and healthy under one roof, gave deputy Torsten serious pause.
Deputy Torsten, consulting with the eminent Dr. Frye, soon concluded that Lisa’s premises were especially not suitable for the three giant tortoises, although the tortoises had their own specially heated quarters away from Lisa's pell-mell herpetorium. The Fort Bragg Sulcatas lived in their own comfortable quarters, complete with an outdoors option, where the Sulcatas lounged in Saharan comfort on heated flooring. If they chose, and they often did, they could trundle outside into their attached outdoor pen to enjoy the sea breezes off the nearby Pacific.
These particular desert animals are now perfectly acclimated to Fort Bragg’s temperate envelope. They enter and leave their cozy, climate-controlled indoor quarters as they please. When it's warm outside they go outside. When it's cold outside they remain inside.
But deputy Torsten, buttressed by expert opinion from Dr. Frye who hadn't yet seen the Fort Bragg Sulcatas, declared that no desert tortoise should live north of the equator, although many do. Sulcatas can be found in the San Francisco Bay Area and in nearby Sonoma County. They are for sale on-line.
Lisa says Torsten, when he took her Sulcatas, told her he would confiscate any desert tortoise he saw anywhere in Mendocino County. But Dr. Frye himself, visiting Lisa’s place from his home in Hopland, said the three tortoises seemed to be in good health.
“But Torsten took my tortoises,” Lisa sums up. “He said it was too foggy, too cold in Fort Bragg for desert tortoises. So, I’m guilty of what? Fog? I was crying my eyes out. It was like they’d been ripped out of my skin.”
Lisa, 46, is a gifted mimic. Her re-creations of what she perceives as deputy Werner’s Teutonic officiousness are quite convincing. The deputy would likely be less amused, but Lisa is beyond reconciliation with him.
“The man has no social skills and I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. The great animal expert picked up my five pound Tagu by the neck! You don’t pick up any animal that big by the neck. Not only is he a magnificent specimen, my Tagu is nice! He’s not used to being treated like that! And then Torsten picked up a baby turtle and dropped it into its pen on its back. My eyes bugged out and I yelled at him, ‘What are you doing?’”
No one can say Lisa is not devoted to animals. Or reptiles, which she’s come to love even more than the dogs and cats most people think of when they hear the phrase ‘animal lover.’ As a child of 9, she volunteered at the Alexander Lindsay Jr. Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek. When Louise Mariana founded the Mendocino Coast Humane Society in 1986, Lisa was there as the first paid staffer.
Lisa’s four acres south of Fort Bragg near the Botanical Gardens has always been animal-friendly, home to a menagerie of creatures that would otherwise perish, the kind of living things beyond the capacities of existing animal shelters to care for. Official Mendocino County is not prepared to shelter a Burmese python until a suitable owner can be found. Lisa is not only prepared she’s eager to provide for the creature, and she will find the suitable home for it through her National Reptile Foundation.
Her life is reptiles.
Everyone in Mendo Animal World knows Lisa and knows her good work. She often appears at area schools with her giant tortoises and other exotics local children are unlikely to encounter north of the San Francisco Zoo.
“The day Torsten came here,” Lisa says, “he’d called for directions. I gave them to him. I have nothing to hide. I only understand now I didn’t have to let him in. He’ll have to have a warrant next time."
The deputy is not unreasonable. Sgt. Poma is not unreasonable. Bliss Fisher is not unreasonable. Sheriff Allman is not unreasonable. There is sympathy all the way up the chain of command for Lisa's plight.
If Lisa can get her place cleaned up she will get her tortoises back. In the mean time, her life is on hold. She can’t take orphaned reptiles in, and she can’t adopt them out, and she misses Lucy, Pedro and Low Boy with all her large heart.