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Turtle Rescuers Rush To Evacuate Their Entire Hospital As Wildfire Gets Closer

"We loaded both cars with animals ... We left our possessions behind."

As smoke from one of the deadliest wildfires in California's history started to blot out the sky, two people realized that they would have to try to do the impossible.

Woolsey Fire smoke over Malibu
ATR

Susan Tellem and Marshall Thompson, founders of American Tortoise Rescue (ATR), have been rescuing turtles and tortoises for nearly 30 years. Since 1997, they have lived in Malibu, California, where they operate a tortoise hospital and care for ailing animals and over 100 rescued turtle and tortoise residents 

When the Woolsey Fire barreled down on Malibu last week, Tellem and Thompson realized they would have to evacuate. 

Rescued turtles at rescue center in Malibu
Some of the over 100 rescued tortoises who call ATR home | ATR

"With last minute evacuation orders, we loaded both cars with animals, including all of the undersized and ill, as well as our seven special needs box turtles from the turtle hospital," ATR wrote this week. "We left our possessions behind. Bunkle, our mascot [the first tortoise ATR saved 28 years ago], also rode out with us. The rest sheltered in place in fireproof housing as planned."

Tortoise sheltering in place in Malibu during Woolsey Fire
ATR

Tellem and Thompson had to spend the night in a parking lot at a local beach. They cared for the 35 turtles and tortoises moved from the hospital as well as their three cats, all of them in the cars.

Then, when they were given permission to return, they tried to brace themselves for what they would find.

Woolsey fire destroyed tortoise rescue
ATR

Their home was totally destroyed. The turtle hospital was also burned to the ground — thankfully, the patients had all been evacuated.

"Our house and the turtle hospital in Malibu burned down Friday, November 10, during one of California’s most devastating wildfires," ATR wrote.

Woolsey fire destroyed tortoise rescue
ATR

The sanctuary part of the rescue center was amazingly intact. Most animals who sheltered in place in fireproof housing survived the fire.

"The fire descended on the rescue, taking out fencing, trash cans, plants, trees, anything it could attack. Thankfully, Tank, Poppy, Evil, Fluffy and more than 90 percent of all the turtles and tortoises survived, including two rescued roosters," ATR wrote. "They were shell-shocked, as you can imagine, from the sights and sounds they experienced as the fire raged through and the winds blew at more than 50 mph."

Woolsey fire destroyed tortoise rescue
ATR

Sadly, there were several fatalities, but 95 percent of the animals had survived the devastation. 

When Tellem and Thompson returned, they worked on comforting and calming their tortoises. "The animals showed signs of stress," they wrote. "We fed and watered them." 

Turtles who braved Woolsey Fire
ATR

Just days after finding everything they owned destroyed, Tellem and Thompson are on their way to rebuilding their rescue center, focusing first on getting the necessary veterinary supplies to care for their needier tortoises. Then they will need to rebuild the whole turtle hospital, as well as their home. 

You can help rebuild the turtle hospital by making a donation to ATR