Creeping to the finish line is a winning strategy -- in turtle derby

May 14, 1994|By Karen E. Ludwig | Karen E. Ludwig,Contributing Writer

Felix's Fella out of DuBois was first to cross the finish line yesterday -- even though he moved at a crawl.

The four-legged racer was one of 40 painted turtles that came out of their shells to compete in the Johns Hopkins 63rd Annual Turtle Derby.

Hospital staffers and medical students gathered with about 50 children who are patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital behind the Welsh Library on Monument Street for the fund-raising event.

"Go, go, go," they cheered.

"Move," others yelled at turtles that wouldn't so much as stick their necks out.

The wooden track, 20 feet in diameter, was shaped like a bulls-eye and covered with a mixture of paint and sand to give the turtles traction.

The turtles, with numbered flags on their backs, began in the red circle in the center. When the call to the post was played by a bugler and a circular gate was lifted, some competitors eagerly crawled out onto the green area, toward the white finish line.

Others had to be prodded by turtle jockeys -- students who stomped their feet and tapped the ground with sticks to get the little critters moving. Still, many turtles never made it out of the red zone.

The derby's heritage dates to 1889, when Hopkins doorman Benjamin Frisby adopted a turtle he found near the hospital and started a turtle farm. In 1931, members of the medical staff were inspired by the farm to hold the first turtle derby.

Since then, the event has grown. Yesterday, in addition to the races, there was face-painting, food, a kazoo band, singing and a turtle mural for the kids to draw on. Individuals and departments at the hospital could sponsor a turtle for $8, with proceeds going to the Childlife program, which provides playrooms

and activities for young patients.

Eleven-year-old Joel Silberman rooted for turtle No. 97 -- Patient out of the Hospital by Tomorrow -- which was sponsored by his hospital unit.

The turtle competed in a preliminary heat, but didn't make it to the final round. In fact, when he finally decided to move -- just as the race was ending -- he headed in the wrong direction, toward the center of the ring.

But Joel had fun anyway.

"It's interesting," he said. "I never expected to be rooting for a turtle to move faster."

The turtles, which ranged in length from eight to 12 inches, were rented from the West Jersey Biological Laboratory and transported by truck to the hospital on Tuesday. They were taken to the mailroom after the derby and will arrive back home today via Overnight Express.

While in Baltimore, the turtles were kept comfortable in a glass courtyard near the hospital's cafeteria, where they were cared for by Hopkins groundskeepers Rick Rogers and Chuck McCauley.

Mr. Rogers, who has been taking care of the visiting turtles for 16 years, gives them plenty of water and feeds them bananas, kale and Puppy Chow. He said they like bananas the best; they eat a dozen or so every day.

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