Hommel's unusual pets like to snuggle, not snap

Wrangell's cool, rainy climate might be ideal for banana slugs and bears, but it doesn't usually appeal to cold-blooded animals that rely on the sun's warmth to maintain their body temperatures. However, one reptile-loving resident is committed to providing a safe home for any turtles and tortoises that find their way onto the island as pets.

Charity Hommel has been raising and rescuing reptiles for over 20 years now.

Her lasting love for the animals began in the early 2000s, when her children returned from a friend's birthday party toting unexpected party favors - two turtles, now named Ebony and Boxer. Though some parents might have balked at the prospect of caring for a pair of surprise pets, Hommel welcomed the animals into the family.

"I thought, 'oh my goodness, a turtle was really cool,'" she recalled. "It started from there."

Since then, she's become Wrangell's go-to turtle rescuer, helping roughly 20 turtles into new homes over the years when residents weren't equipped to care for them or were moving off the island.

Her most notable rescue was a turtle named Pearl that she purchased from a now-shuttered Wrangell pet store around 2005. At the time, Hommel thought Pearl was just "a really pretty box turtle" - a common variety for pet owners.

However, in 2015, an article on the critically endangered Southern Vietnamese box turtle, or cuora picturata, tipped her off to the fact that her beloved pet was actually a much rarer species than she had realized - and that Pearl was actually a boy.

"It turned out that my turtle was called a Cuora picturata," she said. "I found a couple groups that work with endangered species ... so I reached out and they said, 'wow, you know, there are only six known Cuora picturata in the United States right now and it would be really great if he could be part of a breeding program."

Hommel was extremely sad to see Pearl go, but hopes that he can help repopulate the species from the comfort of his new Florida home.

Of the 20 turtles and tortoises she has rescued over the years, 11 currently reside in her home: Bibbles, Boxer, Ebony, Vern, Albert, Zuzu Petals, Bowser, Blue, Atlas, Katie and Jewels. Her 12th turtle, Fred, has a spacious, well-lit tank in her office at Alaska Marine Lines.

Though the animals may not display the same range of facial expressiveness that dogs do, Hommel believes that turtles are full of personality.

"I have one that I rescued from the school and we named him Albert Einstein," she said. "Albert is an angry little guy. He has such an attitude." His standoffishness is understandable when you consider his upbringing, Hommel explained, which was likely filled with pestering by well-meaning students. "He has trust issues," she added.

Her turtle Ebony, on the other hand, loves to snuggle against her shoulder. "He's one of my favorite babies," she said.

Would-be turtle or tortoise owners should be prepared to shell out some cash if they want to take care for their pet properly. After rescuing large numbers of reptiles from ill-equipped homes, Hommel understands the importance of creating a hospitable environment for the animals to thrive in.

"Most turtles and tortoises come from southern areas where they have sunshine all the time," she said. "And they're reptiles, so they don't create their own heat. So they rely on proper lighting and heat to survive, and digest their food even."

Water filtration is also a must for aquatic species, and since there are no pet stores in town owners should be ready to purchase specialized food online and ship it in.

Hommel recommends getting involved in online animal husbandry forums, which offer tips on everything from tank size to the proper brand of lightbulb to use.

She's considered starting up a GoFundMe for her turtle rescue expenses, but hasn't decided whether to do it yet.


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