The Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline is continuing to stay busy with lots of unwanted pet desert tortoises being turned in. Operated by staff at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), located in Las Vegas, Nevada, we are doing pickups on a weekly basis. One big issue that we see regularly: tortoises being left behind in abandoned and foreclosed homes.
Like most areas of the country, Las Vegas’ housing market has taken a pretty big tumble, and as a result, pet desert tortoises are increasingly being left behind in vacant homes. As the Hotline assistant, I have seen many cases in which a tortoise is found by a real estate agent, landscaper, or simply a good Samaritan neighbor with a keen eye; this was the case recently with one massively large tortoise who came to the DTCC from a foreclosed home. We have affectionately named him Monster, and we think he might be the largest desert tortoise on record!
Monster was found several weeks ago by a helpful neighbor who just happened to see him in the yard. What a shock it must have been to see this huge tortoise traipsing around the yard of a home that had been empty for weeks. When I went to the home to do the pickup, I was met by the neighbor as I arrived. When I unloaded the plastic tote to transport the tortoise back to the DTCC, the neighbor, with a look of surprise, told me that the tote would definitely not be big enough for this tortoise.
In disbelief, I told her that if the tortoise would not fit in the tote, it could not be a desert tortoise; instead, I thought it had to be some other large tortoise species, such as an African sulcata, which are also popular pets here in Las Vegas. You can imagine when I walked into the yard and saw the supersized desert tortoise that I was, to say the least, a little bit surprised! How was I going to get him back to the DTCC? With a bit of ingenuity and some great MacGyver skills, I was able to fashion a large transport carrier using both the plastic tote and a cardboard box, which delivered Monster safely to the DTCC.
Since arriving at the DTCC, Monster has had his fair share of visitors! He’s been greeted by all of the staff at one time or another, and our seasonal staff members did a great job of digging him the largest burrow we’ve ever had. We can happily report that Monster is adapting well to his new surroundings, and with a little movement around his burrow, he’s always happy to come out and greet us! While Monster’s story had a happy ending, I’m reminded that for every happy ending for a lost or unwanted pet tortoise that is given up to us, there are many still stuck in the backyards of abandoned homes that we might never find out about.
I hope this might be a great reminder for folks to never leave a pet of any kind at a vacant home, even in the yard, because in most cases, the pet is not safe or comfortable, and if no one knows it’s there, it may never be rescued.
Marisa Musso is a research assistant at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.