They see you before you even know they’re there, waiting, watching. Gingerly stepping from pen to pen, avoiding the prickly burrs and trying not to walk into a pointed yucca while carrying a gallon bucket of tortoise chow, you feel like you’re alone out here. Sure, you know a lack of visual confirmation means they’re in the burrows, but then you get comfortable, not expecting to see anyone or anything because of the temperature of the morning. “It must be too cold,” you think to yourself, back turned as you step into the next pen, eyes cast downward, watching your step. And just as you are embracing that alone time with the desert sunrise, you look up slowly, and fast approaching on those stubby, elephantine legs, five sets of eyes have you in their sights, and they want…the food bucket!
Every morning, one of the first tasks to be done at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas is to round up four or five people to feed the desert tortoises that live on site. There are 6 different pen areas, all of which get fed one or two times a week by the DTCC staff to supplement the native food sources planted in their enclosures. We feed the tortoises Mazuri diet, a moistened pelleted tortoise food that has the right balance of nutrition for desert tortoises maintained in captivity.
Feeding is one of my favorite tasks at the DTCC. With tortoise season in full swing, we are collecting thousands of samples that I am responsible for banking in the lab (see Larisa’s post, New Lab Coordinator for Tortoises), so I don’t always have time to get outside. For that reason I relish the times I am able to feed the tortoises and observe them eating, walking, and just being tortoises in a natural, safe environment. Walking from pen to pen looking for a tortoise to plop a handful of food in front of reminds me very much of an Easter egg hunt: you’re not sure when or where a desert tortoise will appear, but when you find it, it’s such an exhilarating moment! You’d think by now I’d be used to seeing these tortoises, but each time is as exciting as the first for me. Granted, they’re not “excited” as much about me as they are about the bucket of food I’m carrying, but it’s still an experience I would not otherwise have were I not a member of the DTCC staff.
After giving a tortoise some chow, I sometimes take a few seconds to stand back and watch as he/she digs in, glad to be able to help do something that will, I hope, make these animals strong and healthy enough to one day be released back into the wild.
Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read a previous tortoise post, Desert Tortoise: Not Apartment-friendly Pet.