desert tortoise care


Desert Tortoise: Winter Improvement Tips

A desert tortoise patrols its backyard habitat.

As the temperature drops outside and desert tortoises are slumbering in their burrows, we here at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center are busy catching up on projects around the site. This is also a perfect time for desert tortoise custodians to work on home projects and make habitat improvements for their own pet tortoise in preparation for the spring emergence. You might be a seasoned tortoise custodian or just getting started; either way, here are some simple and helpful tips for making the home habitat safe and interactive for your tortoise.

Tip 1: Escape-proof Your Yard
When a pet desert tortoise escapes from a yard, it isn’t usually a family member that leaves a gate open but a gardener or meter reader that didn’t know a tortoise was in the yard. Unfortunately, once a pet tortoise escapes, it is not always easy to reunite him with the custodian. An easy fix for preventing this mishap is to add a simple and removable gate barrier. The barrier should be at least 18 inches high and made of a solid material. A large piece of particleboard is a good option, which can be secured by placing four cinder blocks (one on each side) on both ends of the board. This design works great, especially if there is a need for the board to be removed temporarily. Once the gate barrier is in place, take a look at the entire fence line and make sure it is secure and free of holes or breaches.

Tip 2: Eliminate Hazards
Bundle up with a scarf and a pair of gloves and enjoy some family time, outdoors! This is a great time of year to clean up your yard and look for hazards that may harm your tortoise. Desert tortoises are excellent climbers, and they may try to climb over piles of debris or unused equipment, which can be hazardous if the tortoise falls backward, getting trapped on its “back.” Look for other hazards to fix, like an unfenced pool or water feature, which a tortoise could fall into. By sprucing up your yard this winter, you can make it a safer environment for your family pet this spring!

Colorful globemallow is a favorite food of the desert tortoise.

Tip 3: Spring Planting
Spring is right around the corner, so now is a great time to start thinking about greenery you can add to your yard when the weather warms up! Desert tortoises are natural foragers, and they love to roam the yard munching on plants and grasses. Tortoise- friendly forage such as globemallow, primrose, hibiscus, and Bermuda grass will help provide your pet tortoise with the right nutrition throughout the active season. Check with your local nursery for availability and growing recommendations for your climate.

Lori Scott is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoises Spotlight Teacher Workshop.


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.


Tortoises Need Heat and Light

This healthy desert tortoise enjoys the warm sun.

We are reaching the mid-point of our second season here at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, and we are seeing an increase in the number of calls to the Pet Tortoise Hotline! However, a large number of these pet tortoises arrive with a number of different health issues, most resulting from improper housing and diet. These can lead to a number of different conditions ranging from upper respiratory conditions to metabolic bone disease.

Since the entire shell of a tortoise is made up of bone and keratin, it is very important to feed them foods high in calcium to maintain the shell’s rigidity. As tortoises bask in the sun, they are not only soaking up the UV rays needed for calcium metabolism, but they are also warming themselves so that they can properly digest their food. Without the heat, even if they are eating, they are not digesting or getting the nutrients they need.

Rachel examines a tortoise at the Center.

In one case we saw this year, three tortoises were surrendered to the hotline. They had been living in an aquarium without any heat or light and were fed lettuce for several years before finally being surrendered. By the time they came to us, their condition was so severe that they were only barely alive. Their shells were flat and so soft that they bent inward with the most gentle touch. In addition, their beaks didn’t develop properly, they had severe edema all over their bodies, and they were very ill. These conditions are the direct result of nothing more than the tortoises being housed indoors and not being fed properly.

In another case, a tortoise came to us severely emaciated with old dog bite wounds all over her carapace (see a post about this problem: Family Dog Loves Pet Tortoise Too Much?). Because the family dog kept trying to use her as a chew toy, she was kept in a closet without heat or light where she was fed lettuce and fruit (not ideal for tortoises). Today, that tortoise is emaciated because, even though she was given food, she was unable to digest it without heat and light. She is just one of a number of tortoises we are rehabilitating so that some day they will be healthy enough to be released to the wild where they will contribute to the recovery of wild populations.

Rachel Foster is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.


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.


New Lab Coordinator for Tortoises

Larisa holds a juvenile desert tortoise.

It was 9 degrees Fahrenheit (-12.7 degrees Celsius) when I boarded the plane that would deliver me from Boston to Las Vegas to become the San Diego Zoo’s newest research associate at its Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC). I boarded the plane wearing a heavy down-filled jacket, a wool scarf, insulating gloves, and calf-length suede boots; let me tell you, I was down to a T-shirt by the time I got outside McCarran airport!

Being born and raised in coastal Massachusetts where the ocean is a short drive away, every yard has a green lawn, and winter means temperatures below freezing, Las Vegas gave me quite the culture shock. In Massachusetts, we consider 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1.1 degrees Celsius) to be a nice day in the winter! I found it fascinating to be in the desert in February with no snow on the ground, and I found the colors of the desert against the cloud-free sky to be really refreshing.

From blizzard to bliss in one day!

Larisa is now at home at the DTCC.

At the DTCC, my job is organizing the lab so that when tortoises come in via the hotline (see post Desert Tortoise Hotline) or we bring them in from the site to inventory, we have all the supplies necessary to process tortoises as quickly and smoothly as possible so as not to cause the tortoises any undue stress. We check the tortoises for injuries and symptoms of illness, such as upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) caused by the bacterium Mycoplasma agassizii.

Processing tortoises consists of assigning an ID number to each tortoise; taking blood, oral, and nasal samples; and checking the tortoise’s shell and inner cavities for any abnormalities that may need special attention. After the health assessments are complete, the tortoises are given water and food and are placed in overnight holding before being moved to a quarantine pen with a man-made burrow.

Along with being responsible for the lab, I am also responsible for our newly arrived necropsy trailer. The necropsy trailer is a great asset for the DTCC because now, when a tortoise dies, we have an organized, isolated area where we can examine the body and learn what caused the animal’s death. We can then use that knowledge to better care for the live tortoises in the future.

Although I am far from home in a region of the country that is completely new to me, I am glad to have made this journey, because I am now part of the important task of helping to save a threatened species. When you go to college and imagine doing something important with your degree and with your life, being in Las Vegas working at the DTCC with these incredible animals has proven to be just that for me.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.


Desert Tortoises: Lucy and Ethel

Greetings to my fellow tortoise lovers.

Last week we updated you on some of the challenges we face at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas with regard to the condition many of the tortoises are in when they arrive here (see post, Desert Tortoises: A Sad Week). Whether out of ignorance or just sheer neglect on the part of their previous guardians, many of these tortoises arrive with a wide variety of conditions that range from metabolic bone disease and upper respiratory tract infection to severe body deformities and traumatic injuries, which are most commonly caused by dog bites or being hit by a vehicle. Despite these daily challenges, great things happen here as well, so this week I’d like to share with you one of our success stories.

Lucy and Ethel arrived at the DTCC on my second day at work, and I immediately fell in love. Okay, so I fall in love with all of my patients, but these two girls really hold a special place in my heart. When they arrived, we immediately noted their flattened carapaces (top shell), called pancaking, and they had quite a bit of pyramiding (raising) of their scutes (indivudal pieces of the shell). A normal healthy desert tortoise should have a nicely rounded carapace, and the scutes should all lay flat along the surface. In addition to the severe shell deformities, their skin was very yellow and flaking off, and their eyes were swollen so severely that they could barely open them. They were also so weak that they could not support their own weight enough to move about their enclosure. All of these signs indicate to us that these tortoises were definitely kept indoors for the majority of their lives so they didn’t get the proper heat and light and were not fed a well-balanced diet. It is quite miraculous that they have lived as long as they have and that their organs have not completely shut down.

So at this point you must be asking yourself, When will she get to the good part? Well, here it is: after weeks of providing them with the proper food, allowing them to bask outside daily in the sun’s natural rays and soaking them every other day in a tub of water to help them establish and maintain hydration, they look like new girls, so much so that our DTCC manager, Paula Kahn, refers to them as the Lovely Ladies! In these past few months they have gone from being marginally alive to interactive, beautiful eating machines, and even their skin and shell color is approaching normal. Of course, they will always be very recognizable because no amount of good food, light, and heat will fix the carapace deformities they have, but their skin looks 100 percent better, and we can finally see their beautiful eyes!

In addition to their physical improvements, they have also greatly improved in behavior. Like most sisters, they fight over the best spots in their enclosure, and, of course, they squabble over their food. They have changed from two very sick and depressed little girls that I worried wouldn’t make it to two very energetic and healthy (though a bit deformed) big girls (they’ve also gained quite a bit of weight). Due to the severe deformities of their carapaces, they cannot be released back to the wild but rather will be used as education animals to show students and visitors the proper way to care for a tortoise…a valuable lesson for all.

Rachel Foster is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.


Desert Tortoises: A Sad Week

Lucy and Ethel

Lucy and Ethel

Two weeks ago we took in more sick tortoises at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas than we have taken in during the entire 12 weeks we have been here (see previous post, Helping Tortoises and Others). It took me until now to keep myself together long enough to put it into words for you. Honestly, some of the tortoises we received were only marginally alive, and the saddest part is that in almost every case, these tortoises were sick because of the way they were cared for in captivity.

Caring for a tortoise, or any reptile for that matter, is a simple and balanced equation: they need the proper light, heat, and nutrition so they can thrive. If one of these is not being provided adequately, a reptile’s health will fail, and in the case of tortoises, it may be weeks, months, or even years before someone will notice that there’s something not quite right about the tortoise. And by then, it’s usually too late to correct the problem.

I recently asked the DTCC staff to start calling the previous owners of some of the sick tortoises we received to ask about how they cared for the tortoises before they arrived at our facility. In every case, the previous owners said at least one of two things: they didnt know their tortoise was in bad condition when they surrendered it; they thought they were taking great care of their tortoise because they let it outside from time to time and they fed it lettuce. When my staff explained to them how to properly care for tortoises, almost every tortoise owner said that they didn’t know about the basic requirements that tortoises need to thrive, and many felt terrible that they were directly responsible for the poor condition of their tortoise.

One desert tortoise came to our facility two weeks ago and our hearts broke when we saw him. His shell was sunken on top, the scutes (outer layer of the shell) were deformed, both his shell and skin were discolored, he was lethargic, and he was barely able to open his eyes. We knew immediately that the only thing to do was to humanely euthanize him. We talked over the case with our vet at the Zoo, Dr. Nadine Lamberski, who ordered immediate euthanasia to end his suffering. I cried all the way to our local vet just thinking about how long this tortoise suffered before he came to us.

Research associates Rachel Foster and Kirsten Dutcher called the person who surrendered the tortoise and asked how the tortoise arrived in this condition. The man said that the tortoise had belonged to his roommate, who kept him in a dark room for over a year. When the roommate moved out, he abandoned his tortoise in the apartment, so this man called to have the tortoise picked up and brought to us. This poor animal received no heat and no light for over a year! No heat or light means his food could not be digested, and to make up for the lack of Vitamin D and calcium, the tortoise’s body took the calcium it needed straight out of its bones and its shell, which left him soft, deformed, and extremely ill. Eventually, a tortoise in this condition will suffer from organ failure and a prolonged and likely painful death.

I am blogging this today because if you choose to keep a desert tortoise as a pet, we at the DTCC want it to have the healthiest life possible. So following are some simple guidelines to help you make sure your tortoise is getting its basic needs met:

– Before getting your desert tortoise, read read read read. Did I mention read? Learn everything you can about desert tortoises and prepare all of the things you need BEFORE you legally adopt your tortoise.

Never take a desert tortoise (or any reptile) from the wild. That’s where they belong and that’s where they will have the healthiest, most natural lives (not to mention, it’s against the law!). If you absolutely insist that you must have a desert tortoise as a pet, contact your local turtle and tortoise group or your local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office to find out how to go about legally adopting one.

Heat and UV Light: There is no lightbulb on the face of the earth that can provide the exact amount of heat and light that a tortoise needs. Therefore, desert tortoises must live outside. No ifs, ands, or buts about it, seriously. If tortoises are kept inside without the proper heat and light, you may see them eat, but they simply cannot digest their food or use the nutrients.

Living Space: Never keep your desert tortoise in a tank, aquarium, or terrarium, no matter how small they are. Tortoises need lots of space, not just to walk around and stretch their legs, but to thermoregulate; this means that they walk to sunny spots to warm up and to shady spots to cool off. In the wild, desert tortoises spend over 90 percent of their time below ground in burrows, and that’s what they need to do in captivity, too. Help your tortoise by building a burrow for him in your yard!

Nutrition: Do not feed your desert tortoise (or any reptile) lettuce as its only food source. And absolutely never feed your desert tortoise dog food or cat food. The best thing you can do is to feed your tortoise a variety of veggies, grasses, legumes, and anything natural from their environment. You could also try feeding a complete tortoise diet like tortoise chow.

– Water: Desert tortoises need water! We receive lots of tortoises here at the DTCC that are dehydrated because their owners think they don’t need water. While desert tortoises in the wild get most of their water from food and the occasional rain puddle, you should try soaking your tortoise in a shallow tub of water every two or three weeks during the active season (April through October). Don’t be alarmed when they stick out their head and submerge the entire thing in the water. Desert tortoises store 40 percent of their body weight as water in their bladders! That’s why it is unlawful to touch a desert tortoise in the wild: if they void their bladder, they lose their water supply, and if it doesn’t rain soon thereafter, they can die.

These guidelines apply to many kinds of reptiles so I encourage you to read about whatever reptiles you have or are thinking of adopting so you can care for them in as natural a way as possible. Please help us by sharing this post with your friends and family members who keep reptiles, and particularly with those who have or are considering adopting a desert tortoise. We hope that all desert tortoises in captivity can be kept healthy so they can live out their very long lives in comfort! And remember, if you cannot care for your desert tortoise properly and you live in Nevada, you can surrender it to us with no questions asked, and we will do our best to care for your tortoise here.

Paula Kahn is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.