Desert Tortoises Get Great Care

Veterinarians PK Robbins, left, and Nadine Lamberski examine a desert tortoise.

The San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) may be located in Las Vegas, but we have constant support from the San Diego Zoo. Staff from the Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, including keepers, hospital staff, and others regularly make the trek to Las Vegas to help us whenever they can.

If you have been following us through our blog posts, you have likely read about the tortoises we receive from our Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline  (see post Tortoises Need Heat and Light), and you know that we get a number of sick and injured tortoises into our facility every week. The DTCC staff makes every effort to save these tortoises, but we but could not do this without the help of our veterinarians, Nadine Lamberski and PK Robbins, who make a trip to the DTCC several times each year. The DTCC’s veterinary technician, Rachel Foster, is in constant communication with Dr. Lamberski and Dr. Robbins, so even when the veterinarians are not physically here with us, they are always able to help and support us.

On their latest visit to the DTCC just a couple of months ago, Dr. Lamberski, Dr. Robbins, and the entire staff together evaluated a number of tortoises and discussed their health and condition in depth. This training helps DTCC staff better evaluate the health of each tortoise in our care, which is critical since we do a thorough health assessment on every tortoise that we touch. The health evaluation covers every detail on the tortoise, from the inside of the mouth to the condition of the shell. With the veterinarians’ help, the staff can easily recognize skin conditions, respiratory problems, and even learn how to feel the tortoise (palpate) for objects inside them like eggs! After the health assessment is done, the staff can decide what care needs to be provided for that individual tortoise. The DTCC and the tortoises are very fortunate to have such dedicated veterinarians and staff caring for them!

Unfortunately, there are times when we try everything possible and still cannot save the tortoise; this is the hardest part of our job. Luckily, we have Josephine Braun, a postdoctoral fellow in the Wildlife Diseases Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, who will be working closely with us for the next three years to answer questions about tortoise deaths. Any time a tortoise dies at the DTCC, we perform a necropsy (animal autopsy), which allows us and Dr. Braun to determine the cause of death. It’s like having our very own Desert Tortoise CSI!

Knowing the cause of death eases our minds, because without any information about how an animal died, we always assume we could have, should have, would have done something different for that animal, even though we don’t know what that could be. Results of the necropsies also help the staff better care for the rest of the tortoises that are on-site. Dr. Braun spends much of her time at the Safari Park, but she travels to the DTCC to stay with us for weeks at a time to train the staff in doing necropsies and fixing tissue samples. Dr. Braun also collects information from live tortoises at the DTCC to compare with her necropsy findings.

From the time a tortoise arrives at the DTCC, it is treated with the utmost care and respect. The staff goes above and beyond to save every tortoise that we care for. And because of our amazing veterinarians and postdoctoral fellow, we are constantly improving the care we give to the tortoises.

Angie Sawyer is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoise Hotline.

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