Desert Tortoise: NOT Apartment-friendly Pet

A desert tortoise in its natural habitat.

I’m happy to say the Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline is giving us the opportunity to save more stray and unwanted desert tortoises and educate folks on the proper care for their pet tortoises. Manned by staff at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, we’re also really excited to have a new employee join the team! Marissa Musso has come on board as the hotline assistant, and she’s doing a great job out on the front lines educating and working with the public. Marissa’s excellent people skills and cheerful demeanor have been a great asset for many of our hotline calls, especially when we’re faced with challenging cases of extreme pet desert tortoise neglect.

A desert tortoise enters a manmade burrow at the DTCC.

For each hotline call that comes in to the DTCC, it’s always a coin toss for what we’ll find at the actual pickup site. Sometimes we knock on the door and see great examples of the awesome care tortoises can receive in a home, especially when the custodian is providing the proper diet and environment. Simply put, a healthy and happy pet desert tortoise is living outside with lots of natural sunlight in a spacious yard with a burrow and plenty of native plants to eat like desert dandelion, globemallow, and desert primrose. Unfortunately, more often we see sad cases of extreme tortoise neglect, some that require a large box of Kleenex at the end of the day. This has been the case with several pickups we’ve done recently at apartment buildings.

The Mojave Desert is known for its extreme temperatures, and Las Vegas is no exception, but one spring day several weeks ago was one of the rare few that rested in the 80-degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) range. It was a perfect day, until I received a hotline call from a person living in a small apartment with three desert tortoises. I was shocked to learn one of the tortoises had recently died from an apparent case of predation; all three had been living on a small, concrete patio with a cardboard box for a “burrow.” The caller informed me that the largest tortoise had been killed by a raven, and he wanted to surrender the other two. What made this even more upsetting was that I had already visited this caller and had tried to educate him on how important it is for a pet tortoise to have a yard with a burrow. In fact, a desert tortoise spends 95 percent of its life in a burrow where it gets protection from harsh weather and predators.

Even after desperately trying to explain how his tortoises would not survive the summer living on a 2’ x 4’ patio and hoping he would surrender them to the DTCC, the custodian still decided to keep them. You can imagine what a hard day it was, having to leave empty handed and knowing both tortoises would have a slim chance for survival. So when I got the call to pick up the remaining two, I quickly drove to the apartment only to find them in even worse condition.

Both tortoises could barely move; all of their limbs were hanging out of their shell. They had labored breathing and could hardly open their eyes. Before giving the caller any time to change his mind, I scooped them up and drove them quickly back to the DTCC, wishing that our hotline vehicle was equipped with an ambulance siren. After being evaluated by our veterinarian, it was determined that these animals had been suffering for years and were only barely alive by the time I had picked them up. They were in advanced organ failure with no hope of living a comfortable life, all because they lived on a patio with no burrow and inadequate heat and light from the sun.

All of this could have been avoided had the custodian realized he couldn’t provide the right environment for a desert tortoise. When a desert tortoise is living in the wild in our wonderful Mojave Desert, they take great care of themselves. But as pets, tortoises depend on us to care for them and provide the right diet and environment. As most responsible custodians know, caring for a desert tortoise properly can be quite time consuming and extensive; they don’t make the best pet for every situation.

If you have or know someone who has a desert tortoise living on a patio or in a terrarium in southern Nevada, please consider surrendering them to the DTCC. This decision could save a tortoise from months or years of misery, and all it takes is one quick phone call to the Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline!

Lori Scott is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous blog, Desert Tortoise: Big Guy.

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