Tonca the alligator snapping turtle celebrates his birthday in style


Riverside veterinarian Dr. John Rossi examines Tonca, a 174-pound alligator snapping turtle during the turtle’s 47th birthday party held last month at the Museum of Science and History

By Stephen Kindland
Resident Community News

Tonca, the Museum of Science and History’s star attraction, celebrated his 47th birthday in style.
Aside from a little green fuzz growing on his back and perhaps feeling a bit irritable, the middle-aged alligator snapping turtle appeared to be in good health as attendants ushered him into a room full of well wishers. Weighing in at 174 carnivorous pounds, Tonca was lifted from his home in the museum’s native plant courtyard and placed onto a cart by three large – and experienced – men.

He then was wheeled into a conference room where he was greeted by more than 100 children, their parents and Riverside veterinarian Dr. John Rossi, who pronounced Tonca healthy after a 20-minute exam.

“He looks great for 47,” Rossi said after the check-up, which included taking Tonca’s vital signs. “He’s got a little algae on his skin, but that’s normal. It produces toxins that help to control bacteria.”

Rossi, who has developed a relationship with Tonca since the turtle was donated to MOSH in 1994, said the dark green and brown vertebrate appeared to be “pretty mellow,” much to the relief of his handlers.

“He could bite your hand off in a heartbeat,” the veterinarian said. “Their strike is very quick.”

Robert Hayes, the man who found Tonca in a culvert in Bayard nearly 20 years ago, also attended the birthday bash, which included donuts, balloons and a “turtle cake.”
Hayes said he visits the museum as often as possible, and that he remains grateful that Tonca – whose species is the largest fresh water turtle in the world – receives excellent care at MOSH.

“He’s grown immensely” on a diet of fish and whatever he scavenges in his pond, Hayes said. “He only weighed 25 or 30 pounds when I found him.
“This is where he belongs,” Hayes added. “He kind of stands out here – he’s the star and the kids love him.”
Eight-year-old Evan Meekin can vouch for that.

“He was awesome,” Evan said moments after Tonca was carted out of the crowded room. “I was surprised at how big he was.”
Jacquelynn Hymes had a similar reaction. “His head looks like a rock,” Jacquelynn said. “Now I want a turtle, but not that big.”
Her brother, 8-year-old Jonathan, said he wanted to touch Tonca, but “it’s probably just as well” that he didn’t. “He could bite your hand off,” Jonathan said.

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