An employee was fired from the popular Reston Pet Farm this week after alerting Fairfax County authorities that a giant turtle was hit until his nose bled.

Yesterday, a county magistrate ordered a court hearing to decide exactly what happened the night Jethro, a 75-year-old, 300-pound tortoise, wouldn't budge.

The giant Aldabra tortoise was jabbed repeatedly under his shell with a foot-long board because he refused to move out of the cool night and into his turtle house, equipped with heated lamps, according to Joanna Moore, the fired caretaker.

Turtle enthusiasts and animal rights activists yesterday condemned the Pet Farm, which 90,000 people visited last year, for firing Moore and urged a complete investigation of the way all 200 animals were cared for at the Reston farm.

"A nosebleed in a tortoise is not like a nosebleed in a human," said James Van Abbema, board member of the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, an East Coast turtle group with 1,100 members. "Tortoises' nose areas are less sensitive than humans . . . . They don't start bleeding at the drop of a hat."

Van Abbema said turtles are the ultimate survival story: Tortoises have "remained essentially unchanged for 200 million years," he said, and the last thing that should be tolerated is mistreatment by humans.

Sam Farmer, the Pet Farm employee named in the complaint, could not be reached yesterday, but Shirley Johnson, who owns the farm, said the Sept. 25 incident was being investigated.

As for why Moore was fired, Johnson said her husband, Robert, dismissed the caretaker because she "didn't go through our grievance procedures" when she alerted animal control officials to the way Jethro was herded into his home.

Mary Beth Sweetland, researcher for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Rockville, spent yesterday calling herpetologists at the Bronx Zoo and the National Zoo to see if Jethro might have lingering or lasting problems because of the head injury.

"When he was ramming {Jethro's} head, it was pretty clear that the animal wasn't going to move; you only do that out of anger and vindictiveness . . . . This is unconscionable treatment for such a noble animal."

Johnson said that she called a veterinarian and told him what happened and that she was assured the giant tortoise was fine.

"We don't tolerate abuse at all," Johnson said. "I don't think criminal charges are necessary."

Moore said that she had told her managers about the "turtle herding method," but that they did nothing about it.

"I kept waiting for them to call the vet. They did nothing."

When she came to work on Monday, Moore said, "Bob Johnson asked me if I called the warden; when I told him I had talked to them, he said, 'You're out of here. Goodbye.' "

A Fairfax County magistrate set a Nov. 15 hearing on whether Jethro was treated cruelly.

Sweetland said she hopes the incident spurs a county investigation into other complaints she has received about the pet farm -- including allegations of a bear's not getting enough water, cramped animals and leashed monkeys.

She said she categorically despises pet farms, which she called "operations that run under the guise of being recreational and educational, when they are simply imprisoning animals to make a buck."

Johnson said her animals are well cared for.