Palace of Fine Arts turtles were the target of a brazen daylight theft

Photo: Shadowfall/Flickr
People who frequent the Palace of Fine Arts lagoon have witnessed a lot in the last few years. Beyond the beautiful upgrades to the grounds, the cycle of life has played out with dramatic twists and turns. Swans and ducks have disappeared at the hands of both man and nature, and wildlife has been removed to protective custody. What neighbors saw in early July, though, was a first for many.

A local couple was taking their usual walk around the Palace on a Sunday morning when they saw a man swimming in the center of the lagoon. When he came to shore, the man handed a turtle to a female companion, who placed it in a white box with holes on top, and the two quickly strode to their car and left.

A new pet? A cheap birthday gift? Whatever the purpose of the turtlenapping, the eyewitnesses were alarmed at the brazen act and took down as many details as they could about the grabbers and the getaway car, but then were at a loss over what to do. They found no signage anywhere saying where to call in case of vandalism or wildlife harassment. The only other person they saw was an Exploratorium employee, who gave them a number for the administration office of the Palace of Fine Arts Theater and also said she would let her bosses know about the incident.

The witnesses had already found the same phone number online but, it being Sunday, only got an answering machine. The details were also e-mailed to the information address for the theater.

The concerned neighbors did receive a response later in the week from Kevin O’Brien, the executive director of the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, who directed them to the main number for the S.F. Recreation and Park Department (RPD). He also suggested they could have called the police.

The witnesses called the RPD number, where they left a message regarding the incident saying had detailed descriptions, but they never received a return call.

So the question remains: what should people do if they see something damaging or dangerous on park property? Currently there are only two signs at the Palace indicating whom to call: one at the gardeners’ storage area says to call 911 to report trespassers, and the other a SAFE Neighborhood Watch sign at the Jefferson Street extension says to report suspicious activities to 911.

Connie Chan, deputy director of public affairs for S.F. Recreation and Park, recommends park users contact the department’s own police unit in such a circumstance. “We ask the public to call our Park Patrol at 415-242-6390 when they witness acts of park abuse or vandalism,” said Chan. “Officers can cite offenders within our parks, and they work closely with SFPD. They should certainly call 911 if there is a life-threatening situation to report; otherwise they should call the police nonemergency line at 415-553-0123.”

You can also call 311, the city’s customer service line, to be connected to either of those numbers.

Park Patrol has only 12 officers to police the 3,400 acres of parkland within San Francisco, which includes 220 neighborhood parks. With only a few of those officers on patrol at any one time, a turtlenapping from the Palace might not be top priority.

Though Chan was not aware of (and was shocked by) the turtlenapping incident, she asked that the witnesses contact both her and Park Patrol so they can investigate the event further. She would also like to forward the information to the department’s Natural Areas Management team so they can conduct a survey on the turtle population at the Palace of Fine Arts. “We greatly appreciate the public’s help to protect our animals at the Palace of Find Arts,” she said.

As far as plans for additional signage in parks to let people know where to call regarding park disturbances, Chan says SFRPD is currently looking at their entire signage system, but there may not be any additional signage in the near future.

“I’m just really glad that people are watching out for our wildlife in the parks,” said Chan.