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About Author: Angie Covert

Posts by Angie Covert

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Volunteers Help Desert Tortoises

Volunteer Kimi Sharma won a contest for most volunteer hours worked in June: 71 hours!

Volunteer Kimi Sharma checks on a resident of the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.

I’m always amazed to see volunteers bouncing into the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center at 5 a.m. to start the day. Most of our volunteers drive long distances to give of their time and help the tortoises. We had wonderful volunteers this season, all very dedicated! They have already put in over 600 hours so far this season!

Our volunteer coordinator, Lori Scott, did a great job coordinating, orientating, and keeping up with the various schedules of the volunteers. Lori’s job was to also make sure they felt appreciated and were gaining a valuable experience. Kimi Sharma won a contest for most volunteer hours worked in June: 71 hours! Before Kimi left to head back to school in Boston, she had acquired 155.5 hours of volunteer work. Kimi was kind enough to bring all of us lunch on her last day, which we appreciated very much…I don’t think she really wanted to leave!

The volunteers work really hard in the hot summer sun right along with staff watering, feeding, and helping us care for all the desert tortoises on site. We appreciate every hour the volunteers give of their time to help out the tortoises they care for. Volunteers help us out tremendously, and we couldn’t do our job without them!

We are now gearing up for translocation season and are always looking for volunteers to help out—it’s such an awarding experience! If you are in or going to be in the Las Vegas area and wish to help with volunteering, email us at DTCC@sandiegozoo.org.

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

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Internship at Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

Our student interns help desert tortoise conservation in a big way!

Our student interns help desert tortoise conservation in a big way!

Throughout 2012, the staff at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center worked with students from a local high school, West Career & Tech Academy (see Students Help Desert Tortoises). The students were very interested in science and receiving hands-on experience, and we were happy to help out any way we could to expose the students to real-world experiences and to gain a little help of our own. West Tech started an internship program and asked us to participate; we, of course, were happy to help and keep the partnership alive. We thought of a number of projects the interns could work on and found the perfect fit. Our first interns, Gendie Gonzales and Cheyenne Taylor, were interested in participating in duties at the DTCC, but since it’s winter here, we had to come up with an indoor project that would benefit all.

The sample-filled tubes await organizing.

The sample-filled tubes are organized and banked, thanks to our interns.

An experienced biologist had collected over 4,000 biological samples (such as plasma, red plasma, red blood cells, ticks, and oral swabs) from desert tortoises at various Mojave Desert sites over the past summer. We needed help banking or organizing all the sample-filled tubes that were in plastic bags with a date on them when given to us. Banking these important samples is not an easy task and takes a lot of time and meticulous effort to ensure no mistakes are made. These samples are important, because they will be around for a long time and will help give us invaluable information about wild desert tortoise genetics and health.

The internship is a great way to give students a look into a career in conservation biology and give us a helping hand at the DTCC. We look forward to the continuing partnership in 2013!

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

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Promoting Desert Tortoise Care

Angie (in middle) and other DTCC staff help promote desert tortoise care at the Plant Sale.

Spring is here, and the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) is gearing up for the 2012 season. Tortoises are emerging from hibernation, and local custodians of tortoises have lots of questions for the DTCC staff!

One of our roles is to help educate Las Vegas residents about wild and pet desert tortoises. Attending local events such as the Springs Preserve Plant Sale is one way to reach people. The plant sale sells native Mojave Desert plants, which are more water efficient for yards in Las Vegas. It’s also a great opportunity to work with a local partner and educate the public on proper plants for pet tortoise habitats. The event gives us the opportunity to talk to people one on one and answer questions. We can also hand out important information to desert tortoise custodians, such as a list of native foods and plants they can add to their backyards.

It’s very important for people to know how to properly care for their pet tortoise! This year, we had a number of interested people who wanted to know what we do for desert tortoises and how they can help. We were able to explain our efforts in recovering the wild desert tortoise and the research projects we are working on. Our goal is to relocate tortoises back into the desert; the DTCC is the only legally authorized organization allowed to do this.

We also encouraged Springs Preserve Plant Sale attendees to volunteer at the DTCC, which is a great way to learn more about what we do. We had a sign-up sheet and information about the type of volunteer work they could do to help the desert tortoise!

If you are interested in volunteering, please email us at DTCC@sandiegozoo.org.

Angie Covert is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoises Get Great Care.

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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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Desert Tortoise Hotline

A DTCC staff member on a pickup service call

This year is starting out to be quite busy for the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), located in Las Vegas. We are now operating the DTCC Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline/Pickup Service that complements Clark County’s Wild Desert Tortoise Pickup Service. Clark County operated both services until December 31, 2009, picking up desert tortoises that people found on development sites, tortoises in harm’s way (such as along a highway), or unwanted or found pet desert tortoises wandering in developed areas. Starting January 1, 2010, Clark County continues to pick up wild tortoises found on development sites, but the DTCC now picks up surrendered pet tortoises and tortoises found in already developed areas.

Last year, we received approximately 1,000 tortoises from the pickup service, and most were unwanted pets. We are anticipating that the number will increase this year as we reach out to educate the public about proper captive care for these special animals.

Angie takes a call on the hotline.

We take calls from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the week, including weekends. When someone calls the DTCC Pet Desert Tortoise Pickup Service, the phone is answered by one of two dedicated hotline staff members, and if they miss the call or the call comes in after hours, a staff member returns the call as soon as possible. Staff briefly ask for general information regarding the tortoise’s condition to make sure it doesn’t need immediate medical attention, and they schedule the pickup, requesting the caller’s address. At the time of the pickup, staff try to gather as much information as possible from the caller regarding the history of the tortoise. This information helps us to better care for the animal and gives us a great opportunity to educate the public about captive care and conservation of wild desert tortoises.

We are excited to start educating pet desert tortoise owners about captive care because we know this is a crucial step in ensuring the health of captive tortoises. A great majority of pet desert tortoises we received from the hotline last year were not healthy animals; interestingly, most had health issues that could have been prevented with small changes to nutrition and housing. With the San Diego Zoo operating the DTCC Pet Desert Tortoise Pickup Service, we will get the chance to talk to people face to face and address these issues. We also plan to offer a captive-care class at the DTCC. The topics we will be discussing include:

- Proper feeding and watering of pet desert tortoises
- Burrow construction
- Toxic plants in your yard
- Importance of desert tortoises living outside
- Brumation (hibernation)
- Sexing your desert tortoise
- Desert tortoises living with other domestic pets

We will also conduct health assessments on pet desert tortoises and be able to recommend tortoise veterinarians in the Las Vegas area. The class will be another way for us to get the word out about conservation of the desert tortoise. Our hope is that as the word spreads, we can begin to understand how many pet desert tortoises there are in the Las Vegas area, and we can make strides in decreasing that number.

We would like to coordinate with veterinarians and other local businesses to arrange for them to serve as authorized drop-off locations for the hotline around the Las Vegas Valley. These locations will help ease the demands on the pickup service staff, especially during our peak season from April to October. It will also provide pet desert tortoise owners anonymity when dropping off tortoises, so those who hesitate to call the hotline because they are required to provide an address and phone number may be more likely to turn in their pet desert tortoises.

We are looking forward to the New Year and new endeavors, and the new hotline will help us to spread our message of desert tortoise conservation all over southern Nevada and beyond!

IMPORTANT NOTE: It is against the law to remove a desert tortoise from the desert! If you come across one, even if it is a hatchling and seems helpless, it is healthier for the tortoise to stay in the wild than to be disturbed and brought to the DTCC. The wild desert tortoises that Clark County picks up only come from development sites and are removed by authorized biologists that are permitted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Angie Sawyer is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, We Love Volunteers.

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We Love Volunteers

Volunteer Andrea Ortiz washes one of many tortoise totes.

Volunteer Andrea Ortiz washes one of many tortoise totes.

As soon as San Diego Zoo staff arrived at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas back in March 2009, we started receiving e-mails from people interested in volunteering their time to help the tortoises. We knew that starting a volunteer program would not only benefit us here at the DTCC, but it would also help us spread our conservation message throughout the Las Vegas area.

We decided to start a volunteer program that would allow us to “hire” volunteers after going through a stringent interview process and background check. Volunteers also must show us their current driver’s license, as well as proof of health insurance in order to be allowed on site. We now have a volunteer base of almost 20 people who work here on a regular basis. Their experiences and backgrounds are diverse, as are their reasons for wanting to volunteer: some want to help because they are natives to the area, while others are looking for hands-on experience and plan to pursue a career as a biologist.

Our first volunteer, Alan Croft, was retired and wanted to do something useful with his time. He volunteered at the DTCC for several days every week in the hot summer sun, and he was such a hard worker that we had to make him go home every night because if we didn’t, we are fairly certain he would have worked straight through to the next day! We ended up hiring him as a seasonal research assistant, and now that the season is over, he is “retired” again.

Volunteers are a huge help with our daily tasks, and they have been asked to do just about everything from feeding tortoises to cleaning bathrooms. It’s not always the most glamorous of jobs, but it all needs to get done to make sure we are operating the best we can to serve the hundreds of tortoises we care for each day. Following are some of our volunteer tasks:

Feeding tortoises: During the spring and summer months, we have 4 staff members who each spend about 15 hours every week just feeding the tortoises here at the DTCC! With up to five volunteers helping us, that number is cut down to less than five hours of feeding time per week for each staff member; this is a HUGE help because it frees up the staff to take care of so many other tasks we need to accomplish. This is definitely a favorite task of our volunteers, because the tortoises are always happy to see the food bucket coming their way!

Tote washing: This is one of the most common and needed tasks we have for volunteers. Totes are used daily to transport incoming tortoises to quarantine, to move tortoises around the site for a variety of reasons, and to soak tortoises to provide them with a good drink of water. During the busy season, we can accumulate up to 60 dirty totes per day. Each tote can only be used for one tortoise, then it needs to be scrubbed and disinfected using a multi-step protocol to ensure that diseases do not spread among our tortoises. This is a time-consuming job that absolutely cannot get done without our volunteers! If the staff had to wash all the totes ourselves, in addition to our other tasks, we would be here all day and night!

Burrow construction and repair: Another important job we give to our volunteers is to dig new burrows for incoming tortoises and to cover existing burrows with extra dirt to keep the tortoises safe from the summer heat and winter chill. Digging burrows is an ongoing, back-breaking task, but it needs to be done every day to ensure that the tortoises are safe and comfortable. We have approximately 500 burrows that need to be at least visually inspected each day, and many of them need repair at some point during the season.

Data entry: With so many tortoises on site, we have a lot of data entry to do to keep up with them. This task allows us to know where they are, which other tortoise(s) they live with, what their health is like, and if there are any health or behavioral issues we need to address. We collect two pages of data on every single tortoise that comes through our front door, and the volunteers help by inputting all the information into a database. We are responsible for doing quality control, and with training, we have found that the volunteers do a great job with this daunting task.

To ensure that our volunteers are fully trained in the areas in which they will be working, this month we started a Volunteer Education Class. It is still a work in progress, but we intend to provide detailed training to every volunteer that covers all of the DTCC’s protocols and procedures. We will cover a wide range of topics, from the proper way to feed tortoises to where to put their recyclable goods from lunch! We feel strongly that if we put time into our volunteers, they will be better able to help us. We’ve done two training sessions so far, and they went really well!

The Through the Lens group lends some hands!

The Through the Lens group lends some hands!

Sometimes we receive requests from groups that are interested in volunteering to help us complete a project or to do basic chores. Our first volunteer group was with a program called “Through the Lens.” This amazing group of young adults is getting the experience of a lifetime learning about the conservation of the Mojave Desert ecosystem. They are taking photographs of wild desert tortoises and their native habitat and sharing their experiences and perceptions by publishing a book of their photographs. The group’s director and mentor, David Lamfrom, from the National Parks Conservation Association, was thrilled to offer the group an opportunity to lend a hand at the DTCC and to see desert tortoise conservation first hand. The group members and their families helped us by disinfecting totes, feeding tortoises, and even moving some hatchlings into new pens. We hope to do more events like this in 2010!

We are very grateful to the DTCC volunteers for the time and effort they put into each day that they are here working with us. Truthfully, we could not do it without them. Thank you, volunteers!

If you or a group with which you are affiliated is interested in volunteering at the DTCC in 2010, please contact us at DTCC@sandiegozoo.org.

Angie Sawyer is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.

Note: We also have volunteer opportunities at the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park. Here’s more info…