About Author: Paul Griese

Posts by Paul Griese


The World for a Desert Tortoise

Tortoise Montana shared some attitude with Paul.

Tortoise Montana shared some attitude with Paul.

While working at San Diego Zoo Global’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, I have handled over a thousand desert tortoises. All of them are important to me. One function of my job is to find tortoises and bring them in for medical check-ups, evaluations, and preparation for relocation into the wild. Most desert tortoises are calm, curious, and easy to handle if you are nonthreatening. One tortoise, however, stands out among them all.

Early April. I had to go into Pen #362, find tortoise #17894, and bring her in for medical check-up. The tortoise was in an artificial burrow. I got on the ground, flipped on my flashlight, and prepared for the rough work of trying to coerce a well-dug-in tortoise to come out. Suddenly, one fierce reptile charged out! She scampered all the way from the back of the burrow, legs swimming through dirt and pebbles. She ran at me as if she wanted to fight! All I could think of was Al Pacino, as Tony Montana in the movie Scarface, confronting me. She seemed to be saying “You want to mess with me!? O-kay! You think you’re tough!? O-kay!” I picked up the tortoise, her legs flailing while trying to get at me. From now on, #17984 is Tortoise Montana!

She's now more relaxed around him.

She’s now more relaxed around him.

After her check-up, she was placed back into pen #362. I fed her in the mornings, and over time she became more agreeable to my presence. By June, my route had changed and others fed Tortoise Montana, but I would occasionally go visit her whenever I could. Instead of charging out, she would calmly walk out of the burrow to come near me. Sometimes, if I had extra food, I would make a special trip to her pen to let her have it. One morning, I watched her drink from a puddle of water created by the irrigation drip system. During the heat of summer she usually slept in the back of her burrow. I asked a colleague about her status. She was healthy and would soon be translocated to the desert!

September: Translocation Week. Many tortoises were brought into the lab for their preparation. My job is to put translocation ID tags on the tortoises’ shell. I scanned the lab. There she was! A plastic box tote labeled 17894 362! I opened the tote. While sitting on her bed of hay, she was relaxed and stayed still as I applied the tag.

Paul attaches a translocation ID tag on a desert tortoise.

Paul attaches a translocation ID tag on a desert tortoise.

The next day I traveled with my colleagues out to Eldorado Valley. I knew Tortoise Montana was in the last pickup truck of our convoy. After we arrived at the release site, while gathering the tortoises, I found her tote and placed her at the front of the line for fluids. Afterward, I picked up her tote and walked into the desert with her. I eventually found a shady spot that had lots of desert flora and grass. I lifted Tortoise Montana, looked into her eyes, and gently placed her on shady ground. I filled out her data sheet, made my observations, and said “good-bye” as she looked around at her new home.

Whenever I walk by pen #362 I feel a little sad. The pen is empty now. But I feel good, too, because I know Tortoise Montana has what I know she needs: “The world…and everything in it.”

Paul Griese is a research assistant at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read his previous post, Burrowing Owl: Who Are You?


Seasons of a Research Assistant

Paul releases a desert tortoise into the Mojave Desert.

I am a research assistant at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), located in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am employed on a temporary basis during the time when the tortoises are active, and I have now finished my second season. There are different groups of research assistant positions. My group, known as the “Seasonals,” provides the basic day-to-day needs for the nearly 3,000 tortoises living here at the DTCC. The four of us provide food and water for the tortoises, make sure the tortoises’ pens are secure and that the burrows we dig for them are functional, and make observations of the tortoises’ health. We spend a lot of time outside in the desert heat, but we are also involved in data entry, record keeping, and work in the labs and medical center. We also do a lot of cleaning. If you have ever been involved in any area of animal care, you know that cleaning is a basic function that has to be done!

During my first season, our daily schedule was fairly standard. As the sun was rising, the Seasonals would begin feeding the tortoises according to the daily schedule (different pens on different days). Afterward, we immediately started doing inventory (see post Counting Tortoises). We assessed and put ID tags on tortoises from over 200 acres of pens. We walked many in-line transects searching for tortoises, and we even used camera scopes in the deepest, most convoluted burrows to search for tortoises.

After the first season was complete, I continued to volunteer at the DTCC and soon was offered another contract for 2011. I accepted! While my first season was from June through October 2010, my second season would be a seven-month marathon—starting April and ending into November. I began to wonder: “The inventory project is done, what could possibly take place this year that would keep us busy?” Well, I didn’t have to worry about that!

This year all of the Seasonals got to participate in translocations. During April, May, September, and October, we helped move over 500 of our desert tortoises into the wild. Also, we were allowed to spend an entire day with the telemetry folks to search for our translocated tortoises in the wild desert. Each of us learned how to use the tracking equipment, tune in the right VHF frequency, hold the antennae high above our heads, and search for tortoises.

Monster enjoys a meal just outside his new burrow.

I’ll tell you about one of my proudest moments. Fellow Seasonal Jeremy Conte and I were entrusted with the job of building a better, bigger burrow for our esteemed resident, Monster (see post Monster Desert Tortoise). Monster’s burrow was falling into disrepair. Jeremy and I spent about two hours per day for a full workweek building a new home. After a weekend to allow the mud-dirt wall to settle, it was ready. Monster moved in on a Monday, and he spent the entire summer using the “Monster Burrow.” I am happy to say the burrow still stands strong. Monster had no problems during the summer and seemed more active and social to human visitors.

Side-blotched lizard

A real delightful treat is seeing other animal life here at the DTCC: snakes (including the Mojave green!), bats, red-tailed hawks, ravens, horned toads, side-blotched lizards, geckos, the coyotes that roam outside our perimeter fence, roadrunners, ground squirrels, quail, and rabbits. One time I saw a barn owl flying overhead in broad daylight! We even have some hummingbirds visit. Granted, some in these are tortoise predators, but nevertheless I am still fascinated to see these animals.

And so, my second season has ended. Once again I handed in my Zoo photo ID. Seasonals, volunteers, and interns have come and gone. Many of my talented fellow Seasonals came here from out of state, some just barely out of college, or graduate school, looking for an entry into a biology or zoology career. Being an employee of the San Diego Zoo is a crowning achievement in my life, and working at the DTCC is a tremendous opportunity for getting involved in animal care and conservation. It is hard, sometimes grueling work, but there are wonderful rewards!

Paul Griese is a seasonal research assistant at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.