One Couple’s Reptile Rapture

How Turtle Advocacy Brought a Devoted Queens Duo Out of Their Shell

By Denise Flaim, December 11, 2001, Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.

LOVE ME, love my turtles. That’s the reality Anita Salzberg confronted when she met her soon-to-be-husband, Allen.

On one of their early outings as a couple, Allen spotted a flier for The New York Turtle and Tortoise Society tacked up in the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House. Within months, he had not only joined the group, but also devoted himself to turtle rescue.

Shell-shocked, Anita watched as a snapping turtle took over the bathtub. She opened the refrigerator to find an aluminum-wrapped casualty waiting for an autopsy, and stumbled on box turtles doing the wild thing on the living-room floor.

“We get to Paris and the Left Bank,” says Anita, remembering their honeymoon. “Most people find romance. Allen finds turtles.”

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And so Anita has written Confessions of a Turtle Wife (Hats Off Books, $14.95), which chronicles the 15 years she has spent coming to terms with her husband’s love of the carapace-covered creatures.

These days, the Salzbergs’ Forest Hills apartment is home to 13 turtles and tortoises, plus two seemingly oblivious cats. In the kitchen, a 3-by-9-foot habitat runs along one wall, housing a bevy of eastern box turtles, including Bitsy, who lost a chunk of her shell to a dog chomp. The turtles, for which the couple has the required permits, burrow under cork bark and perk up when Anita sets down some grape-size tomatoes.

On a shelf above them, below a yellow sign that reads “Turtle Crossing,” two semi-aquatic Chinese box turtles paddle contentedly around a tank.

The adjacent tank belongs to Taz, a leopard tortoise from Africa who was smuggled into Kennedy Airport as a baby and who is Anita’s own. Now 5, Taz has all but outgrown her glassed-wall digs. Since she eventually will grow to be the size of an ottoman, “I won’t be able to keep her for her entire life,” says Anita.

Anita, a freelance copywriter, dedicated her book “most of all” to Allen, who tolerated more questions from me about turtles than I put up with turtles in the bathtub. The editor and publisher of an online newsletter called HerpDigest who also does public-relations work, he can’t help but chime in with turtle factoids: How the sale of hatchlings under 4 inches is prohibited by federal law because authorities decided that four inches is the maximum a kid can put in his mouth. (Turtle excrement contains salmonella, which can be deadly to infants, the elderly and the immuno-compromised. As with any reptile, washing your hands after handling is crucial.) How the size of the tank has nothing to do with limiting growth. (For proof, see Taz.) And how China’s demand for turtles for medicinal use has drained Southeast Asia of the animals. In her book, Anita describes Allen’s foray to Chinatown to get his first turtles, two diamondback terrapins. (Chop head? offered the shopkeeper solicitously.) These days, many of the Salzbergs’ turtles are rescues. They can’t be returned to the wild because they might carry diseases that would decimate local populations. And some don’t take kindly to relocation: Box turtles, for example, will keep walking to find their old stamping grounds.

The best way to acquire a turtle, say the Salzbergs, is to read as much as you can, and to find a local turtle society. (In our area, try

Although the kitchen is truly Turtle Central, two aquatic turtles live in a tank in the living room. On the other side of the room, a male box turtle lounges in a container filled with timothy hay. “The males fight, so they have to be separated,” says Anita of the reproductively obsessed fellows. “It’s hard to walk by the kitchen and not see a male mating.”

Though her life — and her apartment — are filled with turtles, Anita is quick to add that her book is “not just for turtle people. It’s for anyone who is married to someone with an obsession.”

The solution, it seems, is for the obsessionless spouse to succumb. Anita Salzberg clearly has, as she shows off bookshelves dotted with turtle tchotchkes.

On a nearby table are some photos from a “turtle watch” in St. Croix, where the couple joined a group of scientists who were tagging leatherback turtles and relocating their eggs.

“Damn, this was a beautiful animal,” writes Anita of the sea turtles, which can weigh a half-ton, measure 6 feet long and have a 12-foot span from flipper to flipper.

“She found the turtle she loves, and it’s the largest turtle in the world,” says Allen, looking as pleased as punch. “It figures.”