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.