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Computer bulletin boards make pen pals of pet pals


All year long, I write myself little notes on things I'd like to look into or write about. They are quickly written and seem to be just as quickly lost. (I suspect the dogs hide the ones about "exciting new veterinary procedures.")

But they never disappear completely. Scrawled in some kind of code (pets&cmputers;," "trtle vid") that I usually can figure out after a little consideration, they seem to surface at this time of year, when the huge effort of dealing with both fleas and The Big Shed touches off a general -- and usually short-lived -- interest in spring cleaning.

Last weekend, while on an archaeological expedition through the "to be filed" stack in my office, I came upon a couple such tidbits:

* Pets by modem. You can start an argument, share a story, ask for advice or just enjoy "talking" with other pet-lovers from around the country with the help of a modem-equipped computer and any number of electronic bulletin board systems.

The nation's largest such services -- Prodigy, CompuServe and GEnie -- all have areas set aside for animal topics. (There are also thousands of other areas of interest, as well as games, shopping and other services.)

The boards are regularly scanned by hundreds of experts, including veterinarians, animal behaviorists, shelter workers and experienced breeders. The range of interests and opinions is vast, with people with all kinds of animal philosophies sharing views more or less civilly with those -- in the extreme cases -- they'd usually see only on opposite sides at a demonstration.

That's not to say all discussions are heated. An animal-lover's posting over the loss of a pet usually triggers a flood of compassionate replies, and calls for advice are graciously and promptly handled by many amply qualified to help -- as well as a few who are not.

Children are commonplace and welcome on the boards. (GEnie even has a pet section labeled "for kids only.")

No matter what the age or interest, this '90s version of the pen pal has some real advantages for those who love animals and want fast access to those who feel the same way. For information about prices and sign-ups, call CompuServe at (800) 848-8199; GEnie at (800) 638-9636; or Prodigy at (800) 776-3449.

* A pet that could outlive you. Although the early Christians believed turtles and tortoises derived their slow gaits because they were burdened with sin, other cultures honored the shelled reptiles.

The Japanese considered them symbols of happiness and good fortune because of their long life spans, and often gave tortoises as wedding gifts to wish couples a long and happy life together.

South Seas explorer Capt. James Cook is said to have given the king of Tonga a tortoise that survived a collision with a cart and two forest fires; it died in 1966 at the reported age of 189. At least in one documented case, a tortoise died at age 152, and could have been closer to 200 years old -- no one knows for sure because it was captured as an adult. Aquatic turtles do not live as long -- usually past 30 but occasionally past 70 years.

Unfortunately, improper care kills many pet turtles and tortoises. Fanciers say the popularity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has made the reptiles popular with people who aren't prepared to care for them properly.

An excellent resource for those who fancy these fabulous pets is a videotape by one of the nation's top experts, Felice Rood of Sacramento, Calif. The 90-minute "Turtle and Tortoise Care in Captivity" costs $29.95; call (916) 421-1134.

Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278

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