Visitors passing through Madrid’s main Atocha railway station over the last two decades will be familiar with the tropical garden located in its former concourse, which is inhabited by around 300 turtles of different species. What they might not know is that Atocha acquired its turtles from owners who for one reason or another could no longer keep them as pets.
Some brought the animals to this warm and safe place because their children, for whom they had been bought, had grown up and were no longer interested in looking after them; others perhaps because they were not prepared or able to pay the 40 percent ticket price to take an animal on the train, and saw a quick solution to their problem. Whatever the reasons, the turtles began to populate Atocha’s covered wetlands, providing tired and stressed passengers with a glimpse of nature.
Aurora Peña works for state railway company Renfe, and her job is to look after the turtles. “We give them animal feed, to make sure they are properly nourished,” she says, wielding a large butterfly net. She uses it to scoop up a pair of glasses that have fallen into the water from a passenger overly keen to get close to the turtles.
In front of the onlookers contemplating the animals crowded on rocks and other platforms in the water is a flat surface covered with fine white sand. “This is the area we have set aside for them to lay their eggs,” says Aurora. If these former pets were in a tropical sea, they would head for a remote and protected beach, such as Ureka, south of Malabo in Equatorial Guinea, where each year thousands of female turtles lay their eggs, and then incubate them. But this is the nearest they will get to a beach in the Spanish capital.
At the last count, carried out in 2012, there were 275 animals. “We take them out one by one, we count them and we tidy them up a bit,” says Aurora Peña. The population has remained relatively stable over the years, with those dying being replaced by turtles from other people in need of a new home for their former pets.