Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline


Do Tortoises Wear Shower Caps?

As a San Diego Zoo Global researcher based at our Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, one of the things that really inspires my belief that the desert tortoise has a chance of surviving the threat of extinction is the interest it garners from completely uninvolved individuals. In the far northeast region of the country (read: Massachusetts), a children’s literature author (fine, she’s my mother), who had never heard of the desert tortoise until I joined the DTCC team, became inspired to help save it. Her contribution is a poem highlighting the trials and tribulations of being a highly sought-after pet in the Las Vegas area.

The idea came about as I was explaining to her that we recommend that people who call the Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline place a tortoise to be picked up in a box in a temperature-controlled room, such as the bathroom. I would like to share her poem in this forum for tortoise fans to read because it is both highly entertaining and accurate!

Do Tortoises Wear Shower Caps?

by R. G. Gokool

I found a tortoise in my bathroom and asked,

“Do tortoises wear shower caps?”

He replied, “Not at all,

For it could slip off, and I could fall.”

“Your shell is so pale,

Would you like some polish, or some glitter on it and your nails?”

“Most certainly not, I use my shell to protect me when it’s hot,

And to hide from my enemy,

Not to stand out and say, ‘come and get me.’”

“Would you like to come with me to the parking lot?”

“No, I’ve been there before and had to withdraw into my hump,

As people tried to use me for a speed bump.”

“Are you hungry? Would you like some dog food or monkey chow?”

“No, no way, no how!

I’m a desert animal, not a mammal,

I like cactus fruit, fevertail, and native grasses.

Not food that gives me lumps and makes me gaseous.”

“Can I use you for a stepstool?”

“No, you can break my shell, and that would be cruel.”

“Would you like to go for a swim?

We can go to the pool and jump right in.”

“No, I come from the desert, nice and hot.

Not from the briny deep

Where all the sea turtles sleep.”

“Would you like to meet my dog, Spot?”

“Certainly not!

“He may be cute, but not too bright,

He’ll chew my leg off in one bite!”

“Can I give you and your hatchlings to my friend?”

“If you do, you’ll find it’s illegal and you’ll pay a fine in the end.”

“Can I take you home and make you mine?”

“If you do, you’ll have to pay a $10,000 fine.”

“Can I pick you up and give you a hug?”

“No, ‘cause then I would pee,

And there are no plants for me

To get water to keep hydrated, so you see.”

“Can I put you in my fish tank indoors?”

“No, ‘cause I live outside. I didn’t come from a pet store.”

If you see a tortoise from your car,

Just admire him from afar.

Do not be sad if he doesn’t wave,

For he’s not that friendly a fellow,

He just wants to be left alone in his burrow.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Bacteria, Viruses, and Disease, Oh My!


Desert Tortoises Pose for Photos

Desert tortoise Homer with Seymore, one of his new family's cats.

The morning sun is barely peeking above the horizon, and magnificent purple and orange rays of light begin to cascade over the entire Mojave Desert. I’m trying to get in as many snapshots of adoptable tortoises before the intense desert heat sets in. Each photo is important, and I know I’m running out of time as a thin bead of sweat drips down my neck: it will only be minutes before tortoises begin to disappear beneath the earth into their cool burrows. Maybe the impressively large male tortoise I’m trying to get the perfect picture of would wait a second longer if he only knew these photos could change his life. “Photos of hope” I like to call them, displaying the unique and charming characteristics of adoptable tortoises that reside at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), located in Las Vegas.

With approximately 1,000 tortoises coming to the DTCC through the Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline each year, it would be easy for them to blend together. However, there are quite a few tortoises that stand out in my mind. Homer, a petite adult male tortoise with a big personality, can be added to my lasting impression’s list. He recently found his forever home with his new custodian, Mandy, who had the opportunity to pick Homer from an adoption packet with tortoise photos and descriptions. Without actually seeing his cute face and curious demeanor in the photo, Mandy might have missed the opportunity to adopt Homer and make him part of her family.

Homer comes over to greet Oliver.

An otherwise healthy tortoise, Homer has a mild beak deformity, which does require supplements of soft food in his diet in case he is unable to eat some of the native forage provided in the yard. Mandy is finding out every day what a joy Homer is to have, and she was excited to send some fun photos of him with his new feline family members, Seymore and Oliver. Seymore especially likes to hang out just above the opening to Homer’s burrow and wait for him to come out and play when the weather is nice (see above). Mandy also tells me the whole family loves watching Homer go about his daily activities in the yard, and she has occasionally found him in the house after finding his way inside through an open back door!

Our main mission at the DTCC continues to be recovery of wild desert tortoise populations in the Mojave Desert. However, I’m hoping folks will see the benefit of adopting a tortoise that is not eligible for release but would make a great addition to a caring and loving home! Tortoises that are eligible for adoption are healthy and social animals that may have been someone’s pet or tortoises with mild physical abnormalities. Through Tortoise Group, the only U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-approved adoption program in southern Nevada, conservation-minded custodians can provide loving homes for tortoises in need that currently reside at the DTCC while advocating on behalf of a threatened species, helping us to spread the word regarding desert tortoise conservation in southern Nevada.

If you want to have a desert tortoise as a pet, and you live in southern Nevada, you can contact Tortoise Group for information on how to adopt one; there are no other legal means of obtaining one outside of Tortoise Group.

Lori Scott is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline: Educational Outreach.


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.


Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline: Educational Outreach

Local students photograph a desert tortoise as part of a campaign to educate the public.

As we welcome the warmer weather, it means the start of our busy season at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), located in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline is running full speed ahead! With so much activity on the hotline, we are excited to be moving forward with a new pet desert tortoise outreach project. This has been the basis for a partnership with a local high school and some exceptional students helping to improve the lives of captive desert tortoises in southern Nevada!

This April, we opened our doors to eight digital photography and design students from West Career and Technical Academy, located in Las Vegas. The students had the opportunity to photograph several desert tortoises and many of the beautiful desert plants, like globemallow and beavertail cactus, that were in full bloom. All of the students have been working hard to combine their awesome photographic images with several of our key public messages to design some really cool Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline flyers, brochures, and postcards!

Students capture beavertail cactus in bloom.

We hope these will help prevent folks from illegally releasing a pet tortoise into the desert. I’ve had many conversations with custodians calling to surrender their pets, and prior to contacting the hotline they had been considering releasing their tortoise into the desert. With so many desert tortoises living in homes in Clark County (approximately 200,000), there is always the potential for a pet to be illegally released if a custodian can no longer care for the animal. A big part of our job involves reminding callers that any tortoise illegally released into the desert will have a poor chance for survival, and even if it appears healthy, it may be carrying diseases that could wipe out a wild population of tortoises. This could be devastating to our recovery efforts!

Another way pet tortoise custodians can help with our mission to recover wild populations is to prevent backyard breeding by separating males and females. This might seem counter-intuitive, but juveniles hatched in backyards often don’t survive and can be injured or killed by vehicles, neighborhood cats, or birds. Many hatchlings that do survive are given away illegally to friends or family members that don’t provide the appropriate care. These hatchlings often die slowly in terrariums and aquariums where they are not provided access to heat and light from the sun, which is crucial for proper shell development and survival into adulthood. Unfortunately, these cases occur far too often, and it is always a sad day when a tortoise does not survive due to improper care or injury. As our outreach efforts increase, we hope to see less and less of these tragic cases and more cooperation from the public in helping to conserve the desert tortoise and the Mojave Desert ecosystem!

As the Hotline rings in the background, I realize how easy it is to get caught up in the hectic day-to-day operations of running a busy hotline. Through this amazing project, I am reminded that conservation begins with each person willing to make a difference in his or her own community. The DTCC thanks the West Career and Technical Academy students for doing such a fantastic job with this project and for making a difference toward conservation. I hope others will be inspired to do the same in their own communities!

Lori Scott is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Homecoming for Big Guy.


Homecoming for Big Guy

As the San Diego Zoo’s Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline is wrapping up our first year of service here in southern Nevada, I am able to take a breath and reflect on the pet tortoises I have met. I feel great about all the pickups we have done to rescue pet desert tortoises in need, but there is one special tortoise that I hold closest to my heart: Big Guy.

Big Guy’s story began last spring when his custodian, Mona, called the Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline. Mona was moving to an apartment and could no longer care for him.  Big Guy had been with Mona’s family for over 25 years, so she really wanted to keep him, but she knew life in an apartment was a bad idea for a tortoise, and we here at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center have seen the fatal results of apartment living for desert tortoises, so we were eager to pick him up and make sure he could continue to live outdoors in a burrow here (see post, Desert Tortoise: Big Guy).

We soon realized that Big Guy was a prime example of great captive care! He was the right size, weight, and color, and he showed no signs of disease or lethargy, a perfect example of what happens when you give a tortoise the proper living conditions like a burrow and native foods!  We got Big Guy settled into his new burrow, and I thought his happy story would end there …but there was an interesting twist!

Several months after Big Guy settled into his daily routine here, I received a call from a representative of Tortoise Group, the organization that operates the only federally approved desert tortoise adoption program in southern Nevada. To my surprise, the new owners of Big Guy’s former home here in Las Vegas where he resided for 15 years had learned about him from Mona during the home-buying process. When Gloria and Jerry heard Big Guy’s story, they immediately wanted to adopt him and contacted the adoption program, with Mona’s blessing, of course!

A new condo for Big Guy!

Although Gloria and Jerry wanted to bring Big Guy home, they still needed to go through the legal adoption process and learn how to care for a desert tortoise properly. Since desert tortoises can live for 80 to 100 years with the proper care, it is really important for anyone considering adoption to realize the huge commitment involved in adopting a protected animal like a desert tortoise. Desert tortoises also have very specific diet and habitat requirements, but Gloria and Jerry were definitely up to the task, and all of their time and effort paid off. After spending several months renovating Big Guy’s burrow and sprucing up the yard by adding more native plants for him to munch on, Gloria and Jerry were approved to adopt a desert tortoise. To kick off Big Guy’s homecoming, his new family invited their friends to a fabulous welcome home party.

Jerry and Gloria welcome Big Guy's return.

On the day of Big Guy’s party, I wanted to ask his new custodians a few questions about why they wanted to adopt a desert tortoise. The answer was really simple: after learning about Big Guy’s life with Mona and her family, Gloria and Jerry wanted to provide him with a good home, but they also wanted to do their part in helping a protected species. By going through the adoption process, the couple understood the long-term commitment and everything involved in caring for a desert tortoise properly. During the party, it was great to see Big Guy explore his new-and-improved surroundings, and amazingly, he headed straight to his burrow like he had never left!

Gloria sent me an update recently on Big Guy’s progress, and I’m pleased to report that he is doing well, and he went into hibernation on October 30. Prior to hibernation, Big Guy also picked up his old habit of knocking at the back door with his beak when he wanted to join the family inside—I guess some things never change!

If you want to have a desert tortoise as a pet and you live in southern Nevada, you can contact Tortoise Group for information on how to adopt one; there are no other legal means of obtaining one outside of Tortoise Group.

Lori Scott is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoise: Not Apartment-friendly Pet.


Desert Tortoises Get Great Care

Veterinarians PK Robbins, left, and Nadine Lamberski examine a desert tortoise.

The San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) may be located in Las Vegas, but we have constant support from the San Diego Zoo. Staff from the Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, including keepers, hospital staff, and others regularly make the trek to Las Vegas to help us whenever they can.

If you have been following us through our blog posts, you have likely read about the tortoises we receive from our Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline  (see post Tortoises Need Heat and Light), and you know that we get a number of sick and injured tortoises into our facility every week. The DTCC staff makes every effort to save these tortoises, but we but could not do this without the help of our veterinarians, Nadine Lamberski and PK Robbins, who make a trip to the DTCC several times each year. The DTCC’s veterinary technician, Rachel Foster, is in constant communication with Dr. Lamberski and Dr. Robbins, so even when the veterinarians are not physically here with us, they are always able to help and support us.

On their latest visit to the DTCC just a couple of months ago, Dr. Lamberski, Dr. Robbins, and the entire staff together evaluated a number of tortoises and discussed their health and condition in depth. This training helps DTCC staff better evaluate the health of each tortoise in our care, which is critical since we do a thorough health assessment on every tortoise that we touch. The health evaluation covers every detail on the tortoise, from the inside of the mouth to the condition of the shell. With the veterinarians’ help, the staff can easily recognize skin conditions, respiratory problems, and even learn how to feel the tortoise (palpate) for objects inside them like eggs! After the health assessment is done, the staff can decide what care needs to be provided for that individual tortoise. The DTCC and the tortoises are very fortunate to have such dedicated veterinarians and staff caring for them!

Unfortunately, there are times when we try everything possible and still cannot save the tortoise; this is the hardest part of our job. Luckily, we have Josephine Braun, a postdoctoral fellow in the Wildlife Diseases Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, who will be working closely with us for the next three years to answer questions about tortoise deaths. Any time a tortoise dies at the DTCC, we perform a necropsy (animal autopsy), which allows us and Dr. Braun to determine the cause of death. It’s like having our very own Desert Tortoise CSI!

Knowing the cause of death eases our minds, because without any information about how an animal died, we always assume we could have, should have, would have done something different for that animal, even though we don’t know what that could be. Results of the necropsies also help the staff better care for the rest of the tortoises that are on-site. Dr. Braun spends much of her time at the Safari Park, but she travels to the DTCC to stay with us for weeks at a time to train the staff in doing necropsies and fixing tissue samples. Dr. Braun also collects information from live tortoises at the DTCC to compare with her necropsy findings.

From the time a tortoise arrives at the DTCC, it is treated with the utmost care and respect. The staff goes above and beyond to save every tortoise that we care for. And because of our amazing veterinarians and postdoctoral fellow, we are constantly improving the care we give to the tortoises.

Angie Sawyer is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, Desert Tortoise Hotline.


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.


Desert Tortoise: Big Guy

Lori and Big Guy

I recently joined the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) as the hotline coordinator, and my first few weeks have been quite a whirlwind! The highlight of my new position came with the very first call I took; that’s how I met Big Guy, a very special desert tortoise.

Although I’ve taken many calls since then, I can honestly say I was a bundle of nerves when my first call came in. As I answered the phone, I could hear in her voice that the caller was a bit nervous, too.

Mona had a pet desert tortoise, affectionately named Big Guy, that she could no longer care for, and she was looking for a place that could take him.

Big Guy’s story with Mona and her family actually started about 25 years ago when her parents were driving on a California highway. They saw him on the side of the road and decided to take him home as a pet (note: taking a desert tortoise is now against the law and has been since the tortoise was listed as a threatened species in 1989). Ten years later, with Big Guy in tow, the family relocated here to Las Vegas (note: it is now illegal to transport desert tortoises across state lines). But now Mona is unable to continue caring for Big Guy. Both of her parents have passed away, and she’s forced to sell their home, the only home Big Guy has known for the last 15 years!

Big Guy rests in front of his new burrow.

After hearing Big Guy’s story, I could understand how hard it is for families to give up their pet tortoises that they love so much. Throughout our phone conversation I tried to assure Mona that Big Guy would do great at the DTCC. I explained that the facility sits on 222 acres of natural desert landscape, and Big Guy would have lots of native plants to munch on! He would also have his own burrow and a dedicated staff caring for him. But it was only after finding out that the DTCC is now operated by the San Diego Zoo that Mona agreed this would be the best home for her beloved desert tortoise!

The next day, I arrived at the home ready to meet Big Guy and hear more about his journey. During my visit with Mona, I was happy to learn that while living with her family, Big Guy had continued to do what tortoises do best: eat native plants like dandelion greens and brumate (hibernate) each year in a well-constructed burrow. After asking a few more questions, I estimated that Big Guy must be at least 40 to 50 years old! Over the years, he had also picked up an interesting habit: Big Guy learned to knock at the back door with his beak when he wanted to join the family inside! I’m happy to say Big Guy is now making himself at home at the DTCC, enjoying our beautiful desert landscape and coming out of his burrow to bask in the morning sunlight!

Although Big Guy has had a wonderful life with Mona’s family, I want to take this opportunity to remind you that the desert tortoise is a threatened species, so it is unlawful to touch, take, harm, or harass a wild desert tortoise. Please: never pick one up off the road unless it’s to move it out of harm’s way—it must stay in the desert. It is also unlawful to cross state lines with a desert tortoise. Tortoises that come from different areas of the Mojave Desert are actually genetically different from each other, so it’s important to keep them in their native range where they can thrive.

In addition, it is a common misconception that you can give away your tortoise if you don’t want it any more, but in the state of Nevada, it is unlawful to give away your desert tortoise, no matter how long you have had it, and no matter how old it is, unless you are turning it over to the DTCC. If you want to have a desert tortoise as a pet, you can contact Tortoise Group (http://www.tortoisegroup.org) for information on how to adopt one—there is no other legal means of obtaining one outside of Tortoise Group. But remember: if you decide to adopt a desert tortoise, the animal has very specific food and habitat requirements and can live to be 100 years old, so be completely sure you are ready for that kind of commitment! If you live in southern Nevada, and you can no longer care for your desert tortoise, please call the Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline.

Lori Scott is a research associate and hotline coordinator for the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read a previous DTCC post, Tortoise Staff on Stage.