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desert tortoise

2

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?

5

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.

2

Bacteria, Viruses, and Disease, Oh My!

One of the many perks of working for San Diego Zoo Global is the opportunity for professional development. I recently got back from one such occasion and thought a change of pace might be nice, especially for you virology types!

I spent the past month in Escondido, California, at our Beckman Center in the Wildlife Disease Labs (WDL) under the instruction of my co-manager, Josephine Braun, D.V.M., a pathologist, veterinarian, and protector of the universe. She periodically sends for me to assist in collecting molecular diagnostic data to check for the occurrence of diseases in certain desert tortoise populations, such as those at our Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas or those in the wild. This past visit, I was testing many different types of tissues for the presence of bacteria such as Mycoplasma agassizii, M. testudineum, and viruses such as tortoise herpesvirus-2. It’s always very interesting for me to go to the WDL, because I get to see the process of determining a tortoise’s health status on the molecular level from start to finish.

It all starts with the collection of a broad range of tissues including each major organ system, tissues with gross lesions, and nasal flushes during necropsy using sterile technique. These tissues are then snap-frozen in liquid nitrogen and placed into a -80 degrees Fahrenheit (-62 degrees Celsius) freezer where they eagerly wait for someone to extract their DNA and discover the secrets they hold about the health status of a particular tortoise. Next, it is decided what pathogens to test for based on pre-mortem clinical signs and/or gross and histologic findings during necropsy and based on previous or current health issues within the population.

To do this, DNA is extracted with the help of a kit that contains all the buffers and tubes necessary to free DNA from its bounds within the cell. Once the DNA is extracted and cleaned, the quality and quantity of DNA is evaluated, and the freshly made DNA can be used for testing. This testing is usually a Real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR) assay or test. The assays are specific for the pathogens in question and will detect minute amounts of pathogen DNA within the extracted pool. With this test, we are able to screen for pathogens that are suspected of infecting and making sick the desert tortoises exhibiting signs of illness on site.

If it weren’t for the capabilities the San Diego Zoo provides, these tortoises would not get the top-notch, round-the-clock care they receive based on the quick turnaround of test results. These quick results can then be utilized to lessen the effects of what could be a large-scale outbreak occurring in a particular population, in this case the tortoises at the DTCC. It is very important that we stay on top of the health status of potentially releasable tortoises, because the last thing we want to do during a translocation is cause the exposure of a previously unknown disease to wild tortoises whose very population we are trying to augment.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoise CSI.

2

Tortoises and Their Amazing Feats

A translocated desert tortoise carries the radio transmitter and GPS unit we use to monitor its movements.

My life as a field biologist finally seems to have slowed down as of late. With the cold weather settling in here in the Mojave Desert and the desert tortoises all hiding deep in their burrows, I finally have a chance to reflect back on my first year here working as a researcher for the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’ve spent the past 12 years of my life studying amphibians and reptiles both around the country and throughout the world. But I must admit, chasing turtles and lizards in tropical rain forests or frogs on tiny islands in the South Pacific did not quite prepare me for working with these iconic desert creatures.

At first I thought, “Desert tortoises: how hard can it be?” After years of searching for silent frogs the size of an Oreo cookie in a dark forest at night, finding a tortoise the size of a dinner plate in a wide-open desert should be a piece of cake, right? And really, how fast can a tortoise possibly move? We’ve all grown up with the story of the tortoise and the hare…and yet even as a trained herpetologist, I was about to be amazed.

Jennifer radio-tracks translocated desert tortoises in southern Nevada.

Desert tortoises have adapted remarkably well to their arid environment. Despite, and perhaps because of, their size, they blend in with all the other rocks and rubble on the desert floor. Even with a radio transmitter glued to their shells, I’ve walked by more than a few, only to turn around to see their little faces peering at me from under their shell, hoping that I would keep on walking and mistake them for a another rock in the sunlight.

And as far as running? Well, tortoises may not be as fast as a hare, but they can definitely move. Currently, as human development takes over more and more of our pristine desert habitat, animals like the desert tortoise are often translocated or moved out of harm’s way. Unfortunately though, when you move a tortoise and drop it Bear Grylls-style into unknown territory (well, maybe not quite Man Vs. Wild style, as we do place our animals carefully in new sites and don’t make them jump out of airplanes and boats), the tortoise runs. Maybe not as fast as a cheetah or a Boston marathoner, but in true tortoise fashion they get their little legs going and race off.

This has been one of the focuses of my research: to figure out what affects an animal’s drive to move and how they behave following a translocation. After all, when we move animals out of harm’s way and to a safe place, we don’t want them to run home or leave the safety of our release site after translocation. Besides that, running takes an awful lot of energy, and if you are a creature adapted to the unforgiving desert environment, you want to conserve as much energy and food resources as possible.

Hillary, one of our translocated tortoises, comes down from the mountain (behind her) that took 10 days for her to climb.

Over this past year, I have spent countless hours trekking through the desert chasing after our tortoises to see where they went. One of them, Hillary (named after Sir Edmund of Mt. Everest fame), ran off right after the translocation and, living up to her name, took 10 days to climb all the way to the top of a mountain, stopping only at the base of a sheer cliff. After 10 days of climbing the mountain after her, to my great relief Hillary came back down and returned to the desert floor, settling in a wash only a few hundred yards/meters away from where we released her. Kenya, another of our amazing desert tortoises, spent the first few weeks after the translocation making daily movements of nearly a half mile (kilometer) or more. This is no small feat for a tortoise! With their tiny little legs, this would be like us walking over 10 miles (15 kilometers) a day!

Besides these amazing feats, surviving in the desert in a completely unknown area following a translocation is an accomplishment in itself. Most of our tortoises have stood up to the challenge and have made it through their first eight months at the new translocation site. While my team and I returned to our trucks at the end of each day, often sunburned and parched after hours of radio tracking, our desert tortoises have soldiered on. With hardly any rain and temperatures that soar to over 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.33 degrees Celsius), these tough little critters survive and thrive in an environment that would put most of the staunchest humans to shame. It’s not an easy task, but I hope the knowledge we gain from our research will help to make future translocations at least a little bit easier on these resilient critters. It’s a tough life out there in the desert, and they deserve all the help they can get.

Jennifer Germano is a postdoctoral researcher at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.

3

Tortoise: ‘Tis the Season for Hibernation

Research associate Daniel checks tortoise hatchling pens.

As we begin the new year at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), almost all the tortoises have gone down into their burrows for their winter brumation (reptilian hibernation). During the winter months, we shift our responsibilities from feeding and processing tortoises (giving health assessments to those brought in to the DTCC) to doing surveillance in our assigned areas. We walk each section of pens looking for sick or injured tortoises and for damage that needs to be repaired in the pens.

Daniel checks tortoise pens to make sure the animals are in their burrows.

At this time of year, with consistently cool weather, all the tortoises should be pretty well entrenched in their burrows. After we are comfortable that the tortoises are down for the winter, we create a wall of earth in the opening of each burrow to provide an extra layer of protection against the elements. At this point, any tortoise found outside of their burrow is cause for concern. When we find tortoises out in cool weather, we bring them in for a complete health assessment.

All sick or injured tortoises are kept in the medical center for treatment, and the tortoises that appear healthy are put back in their pen and checked more frequently to monitor any change in their condition. Typically, tortoises that are awake and out of a burrow during the cold winter months usually have a health issue causing them to come out of brumation. Doing pen surveillance is the only way we can monitor the condition of the tortoises during the winter. Since it is not healthy to disturb the tortoises in their burrows, we have to closely monitor the behavior and condition of the tortoises that are active outside their burrows.

Rachel Foster is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Saving Tortoises, One Urolith at a Time.

1

Rabbits, Rodents, and Tortoises

A new perimeter fence for the DTCC.

Hello again to all desert tortoise enthusiasts! It’s about that time of year for desert tortoises to begin their winter hibernation. For anyone who is new to the desert tortoise Gopherus aggaszzi, this is the time of the year when temperatures start to drop and food becomes scarce. With this seasonal change, desert tortoises begin to slow their metabolism and physical performance and search for a dark, comfortable burrow to “sleep in” through the winter until temperatures warm and food becomes more available.

Finding a secure, empty burrow in the Mojave Desert can be more difficult than just finding a hole in the ground. Desert tortoises search or create their own shelters: they may dig burrows, take another animal’s burrow, or find a small cave that protects them from the cool winters of the Mojave Desert. There are many other animals here that also are looking to hibernate or find shelter from the cold; they may cohabit a burrow with the desert tortoise through the winter season. Animals that have been known to share burrows with desert tortoises are black-tailed jackrabbits and desert cottontail rabbits as well as predators like kit foxes, coyotes, and even badgers.

Recently at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), a new, reinforced fence was built to help control the movement of predacious animals onto the property. Prior to the new fence, coyotes, kit foxes, and even badgers would dig below the fence line to enter the property. This situation became a problem due to attacks on the desert tortoises and the destruction of the grounds at the DTCC. Once the new fence was built, there were no more issues with predacious animals entering, killing, or harming the tortoises.

Unfortunately, the DTCC now has a much larger problem with the local fauna. Since larger, predacious animals are not entering the property, nothing is controlling the population of smaller mammals such as rabbits and antelope ground squirrels. These animals do not directly harm the tortoises at the DTCC but harm them indirectly by scavenging the tortoises’ chow, grasses, and water we put out for the tortoises. It only shows that changing an animal’s ecosystem is not always the best answer to conserving that ecosystem.

Daniel Essary is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read his previous post, Desert Tortoise: Hot, Hot, Hot.

4

Saving Tortoises, One Urolith at a Time

An x ray shows an adult desert tortoise with a large urolith on the left.

The tortoises have begun their fall slow-down and are preparing for their winter brumation (reptilian hibernation) here at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas. This means that the priorities in the medical center will shift a bit. We will have a few tortoises staying awake for the winter because they are either too sick or injured to brumate. However, we will also have a number of residents staying in the medical center waiting to have surgery at the state-of-the-art Harter Veterinary Medical Center, located at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. All of these tortoises have dangerous uroliths that have developed in their bladder (uroliths are analogous to kidney and bladder stones in people).

A large stone removed from an adult tortoise carcass

Uroliths develop for various reasons, the most common being improper nutrition or prolonged dehydration. One of the adaptations that tortoises have that allows them to thrive in the arid desert environment is the ability to store large amounts of water in their bladder and to reabsorb it as the body needs it. As they reabsorb the water in their bladder, the solid particles in the bladder become more concentrated and can stick together. As time goes on more solids are deposited in the bladder and combine with those already present, forming a stone. Therefore, stones are more likely to form if a tortoise goes long periods of time without consuming fresh water to flush and replace the stored water.

Small stones that form can pass out of the bladder when the animal eliminates. However, once the stone becomes a certain size, it can be too big to pass and remains in the bladder where it can continue to get larger. If the stone is there long enough, it can adhere to the walls of the bladder, making it very difficult to surgically remove it without damaging the bladder. Eventually the stone can get large enough to take up most of the bladder space, thereby taking up very important water storage space. This compounds the problem by increasing dehydration in the tortoise. Eventually the stone can block the urethra, preventing the tortoise from eliminating at all and causing a build up of toxins in the tortoise. The long-term presence of uroliths can result in a prolonged, painful death.

A desert tortoise recovers from surgery to remove a stone.

We palpate every tortoise during its health assessment to see if we can feel a coelomic mass. Sand or gravel in the bowels or eggs can feel similar to uroliths during palpation, so we x-ray every tortoise in which we feel a mass to determine what the mass is. Once we have x-ray confirmation that it’s a urolith, we send the tortoise to the hospital, where veterinarian Nadine Lamberski has developed a less invasive technique to remove the stone. Traditionally, the most common stone removal technique used by veterinarians was to remove part of the plastron (the bottom part of the shell) to get to the stone. This procedure is very invasive and can take a very long time to heal since the bone of the plastron has to be removed. The veterinarians at the Safari Park use a technique in which they make an incision in the skin of the prefemoral area (just in front of the hindlimb) so they can access the stone and break it down and remove it without having to remove part of the shell. This surgery can take up to 6 hours to perform, but the recovery time for the tortoise is much quicker for this procedure. I am very excited to say that the veterinarians have performed a number of these surgeries successfully, and our tortoises have been able to return to us with a much better future in store for them.

We have a number of tortoises ready for surgery this winter. Once they recover, they will be able to be released to the wild Mojave Desert in the healthiest condition possible next year to live out their long lives in a natural environment.

Rachel Foster is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoise Hibernation: Not for All.

7

Desert Tortoise CSI

"Detective" Larisa prepares for a necropsy.

The scene:
The hot, arid Mojave desert. Yuccas and Joshua trees sparsely dispersed in the foreground. Yellow “caution” tape surrounding the affected area. Photographs being snapped with numbers and rulers.

DTCC research associate:
The victim (adult male tortoise) was found lying in dorsal recumbancy (on the carapace) in front of an empty manmade burrow, urates on the plastron and ground. A fellow male and female tortoise look on from the corner of the tortoise pen.

DTCC pathology tech:
Looks like a case of love……gone wrong … YYYEEEAAAAAAHHHHH!!

Okay, okay, that’s not how my day actually plays out when a dead tortoise is found on site, which luckily isn’t too often, but we do have a pseudo-CSI department here at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC).

The tools of the trade we use in conducting our CSI activities, all set up in the necropsy trailer. The Mojave Desert can be seen through the window

If and when a tortoise is found dead on site, or needs to be humanely euthanized due to a debilitating illness or severe injury, it is immediately brought to the pathology trailer for necropsy. A necropsy is an animal autopsy, and it is performed by me, the pathology technician, as proxy for our pathologist who is based at the San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories. The necropsy helps determine the cause of death by examining body lesions or changes in tissues.

I begin a necropsy by verifying the death and identification of the tortoise, taking external measurements (weight, size, etc.), and noting any abnormalities seen on the exterior portions of the tortoise. After the external examination, I perform the internal examination, inspecting the organs, muscles, and joints, taking representative samples from each section for molecular diagnostics and histology. For histology, very thin-cut sections of these tissue samples (~10 µm thick) are mounted and stained on glass slides for microscopic examination of cells, structures, and immune response cells not visible to the naked eye. For molecular diagnostics we isolate DNA out of the tissue samples for real-time PCR, used to detect microorganisms. The samples, along with my gross descriptions (not gross as in disgusting, but gross as in overall) and photographic documentation of the case are sent to the pathologist, who will then interpret all of this information to make a diagnosis of why a tortoise died or the main cause of disease if it was euthanized.

A desert tortoise undergoing necropsy to determine the cause of death.

Necropsy is a very useful tool for maintaining the health of a captive population, especially for an animal listed as an endangered species, such as the desert tortoise. By conducting necropsies, we have the opportunity to learn from the unfortunate death of an animal on site. We can see tissue proliferations, severe inflammation, and abscesses that are not externally visible in areas such as the lungs. We also inspect changes to the nasal cavities, an area frequently affected by Mycoplasma agassizii, one of the leading causes of upper respiratory tract disease in tortoises. We can see an excess in production of mineral deposits, such as uroliths (bladder stones) within the urinary bladder that are too large for the animal to pass so they cause a blockage. We can also see endoparasites present within the GI tract that we can sample for identification.

Identifying infectious diseases and disease-causing agents is the first step toward mitigating disease in the remaining population and establishing screening tests. Thus, by investigating the deaths at the DTCC we are able to make more informed decisions regarding how to provide the best care for these animals that are destined to augment the dwindling wild populations.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Meeting Galápagos Tortoises.

3

Desert Tortoise: Hot! Hot! Hot!

A desert tortoise seeks shade in a man-made burrow.

Summer months are the best times for people to get out and enjoy the great outdoors, to go swimming, or to just to relax, but for the desert tortoise, it is time to get some much-needed rest. For most animals the summer season is the time to be productive in life by gathering food, finding a mate, or even establishing a home territory. But the Mojave Desert’s summers are harsh, making it difficult to be active with temperatures reaching well above 105 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius) and with very little (if any) rain. The desert tortoise is well adapted to deal with such extreme weather by going into estivation during the extreme heat of the summer.

Estivation (from the Latin word aestas, meaning summer) is a state of summer dormancy similar to winter hibernation, but in summer estivation, tortoises don’t sleep all the time. In most instances, the tortoises are active for a few hours during the morning and retreat back to a favorite burrow to sleep through the day. As dusk approaches, the tortoise  leaves the burrow for a few hours to eat or drink before night falls. In some cases if there are cooler days or even monsoonal rains, the tortoises come out of their burrows to take advantage of the rain and cooler temperatures. But during the months of June through the end of September, desert tortoises mostly remain inside their favorite burrows for summer sleep so as not to use up energy unnecessarily.

Desert tortoise hatchlings at the entrance to several burrows

We are currently conducting an experiment at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center that may benefit the well being of the desert tortoises on site. We are doing a burrow temperature study that will help determine if the artificial burrows we dig for tortoises maintain the same temperatures as burrows that tortoises dig themselves. Since tortoises spend 95 percent of their lives in burrows, this is very important information for us to know! We placed temperature data loggers in both natural and artificial burrows and set them to record temperature throughout the day.

By analyzing the temperatures in both artificial and natural burrows, we will find out if we need to change the way we dig the artificial burrows so that tortoises can comfortably estivate in summer and hibernate in winter. If temperatures are too high inside the burrow, the tortoise living inside it can get very sick, or even die, so we want to make sure that every burrow we dig provides them with all the protection they need from the harsh heat of the Mojave summer.

Daniel Essary is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read his previous post, A Long Winter’s Sleep.

8

Monster Desert Tortoise

Monster is the largest desert tortoise we've ever seen!

The Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline is continuing to stay busy with lots of unwanted pet desert tortoises being turned in. Operated by staff at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), located in Las Vegas, Nevada, we are doing pickups on a weekly basis. One big issue that we see regularly: tortoises being left behind in abandoned and foreclosed homes.

Like most areas of the country, Las Vegas’ housing market has taken a pretty big tumble, and as a result, pet desert tortoises are increasingly being left behind in vacant homes. As the Hotline assistant, I have seen many cases in which a tortoise is found by a real estate agent, landscaper, or simply a good Samaritan neighbor with a keen eye; this was the case recently with one massively large tortoise who came to the DTCC from a foreclosed home. We have affectionately named him Monster, and we think he might be the largest desert tortoise on record!

Monster was found several weeks ago by a helpful neighbor who just happened to see him in the yard. What a shock it must have been to see this huge tortoise traipsing around the yard of a home that had been empty for weeks. When I went to the home to do the pickup, I was met by the neighbor as I arrived. When I unloaded the plastic tote to transport the tortoise back to the DTCC, the neighbor, with a look of surprise, told me that the tote would definitely not be big enough for this tortoise.

In disbelief, I told her that if the tortoise would not fit in the tote, it could not be a desert tortoise; instead, I thought it had to be some other large tortoise species, such as an African sulcata, which are also popular pets here in Las Vegas. You can imagine when I walked into the yard and saw the supersized desert tortoise that I was, to say the least, a little bit surprised! How was I going to get him back to the DTCC?  With a bit of ingenuity and some great MacGyver skills, I was able to fashion a large transport carrier using both the plastic tote and a cardboard box, which delivered Monster safely to the DTCC.

Monster heads out from his enormous man-made burrow.

Since arriving at the DTCC, Monster has had his fair share of visitors! He’s been greeted by all of the staff at one time or another, and our seasonal staff members did a great job of digging him the largest burrow we’ve ever had. We can happily report that Monster is adapting well to his new surroundings, and with a little movement around his burrow, he’s always happy to come out and greet us! While Monster’s story had a happy ending, I’m reminded that for every happy ending for a lost or unwanted pet tortoise that is given up to us, there are many still stuck in the backyards of abandoned homes that we might never find out about.

I hope this might be a great reminder for folks to never leave a pet of any kind at a vacant home, even in the yard, because in most cases, the pet is not safe or comfortable, and if no one knows it’s there, it may never be rescued.

Marisa Musso is a research assistant at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.