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San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

4

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?

7

Tortoise Fight

Two desert tortoises duke it out.

Two desert tortoises duke it out.

The day started in the perfectly normal manner. Hopping out of bed at 3 a.m., I cruised on through the morning schedule. Pack? Check. Water? Check. Sunblock? Check. As I walk out the door, my cat yawns and glares at me, implying “You DO know the sun’s not up yet, right?”

Once out in the field, I greet the sun rising over the Spring Mountains with the usual smile. Week after week, I track the movement of transmitter-wearing desert tortoises for the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. In short, I hike a lot. However, don’t let me fool you; it’s anything but dull. That’s the beauty of working with living creatures—you never know when you’ll experience something extraordinary. And that’s just what happened that perfectly normal day in the field.

Raising my antenna, I punched the frequency for tortoise #21 into the receiver. After following the signal and tone, I finally approached #21 digging on the apron of a soil borrow. “And another one down,” I thought to myself as I kneeled down to take a GPS point. That’s when I noticed the second tortoise in the mouth of the burrow. I leaned in close, inspecting its carapace. This tortoise had been notched and tagged already, the usual procedure when we come across a resident in the field: #25. I was so caught up with identifying #25 that I hardly noticed #21’s movement until it was butting against the side of my boot. “Whoa, buddy!” Someone was clearly in a feisty mood.

I quickly finished taking my GPS point and moved away to complete the datasheet. Suddenly, I heard scuttling, scratching, and the movement of dirt coming from the direction of the tortoises. “What is going on?” I wondered, and I moved back within eyeshot of the burrow.

I froze. The tortoises were fighting! After inspecting me, #21 had proceeded to move back to the burrow and pick a fight with the larger #25. They were really going at it, their hard shells knocking together with a sharp “crack” upon contact. I initially thought I was witnessing a male versus male brawl but was surprised to discover that #21 was a female! Click on the video link below to watch…

Desert tortoise fight

Shortly thereafter, the two broke apart. I wasn’t sure if I was viewing the tortoise reenactment of “Hit the road, Jack,” but I used the pause to grab my camera in anticipation of round two. Sure enough, they collided again, pushing with their heads and the front of their shells, often lifting each other on their hind limbs due to the force. Finally, the male, #25, managed to flip the female, #21, over the edge of the burrow apron. I stopped recording and rushed to a new spot to see her. She was now on her back, but she wasn’t about to back down. She slowly righted herself on her feet, ready for round three. After several more minutes of tussling, #25 finally backed away, turned around, and moved away from the dirt burrow. Meanwhile, #21 stood triumphantly on her burrow apron watching him meander off. How’s that for a bit of spring cleaning?

I smiled, shook my head, and finished filling out the data sheet. I punched in the numbers for the frequency of the next tortoise on the list, picked up my pack, and held up the antenna.

Yep, just another perfectly normal day…

Tiffany Pereira is a research associated at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center.

1

Desert Tortoises: Healthy Expressions

This desert tortoise is on the thin side.

This desert tortoise is on the thin side.

Compared to the numerous mammalian species you normally encounter, such as dogs and cats, desert tortoises have relatively limited means of expression. To make matters worse, they hide out in their burrows for extended periods of time and are mostly quiet. Furthermore, they can pull their legs and head back into their shell as a safety precaution when startled, so all that remains visible are their shell and the armor-like aspects of their front and hind limb scales. So, how we can tell if a tortoise is sick?

When your physician does an exam, simply asking you questions makes the task much more straightforward. Wildlife veterinarians, on the other hand, have to be much more clever and creative in using indirect measures of health. Some steps included in a routine desert tortoise health check are:

1) Activity
Is the tortoise behaving as expected? Is it alert to its surroundings? A tortoise that is letting its head hang and does not react to the examiner may be suffering from general debilitation

2) Measurements
The tortoise’s size is determined based on its shell length, using calipers. The size is an indicator of the age group of a tortoise. All desert tortoises over 20 centimeters (about 7.9 inches) are categorized as adults. It is difficult to determine the actual age of a tortoise unless you know the hatch date. The rings on the scutes of the shell are a poor indicator of age. A regular-size adult desert tortoise weighs about 5.5 to 8.8 pounds (2.5 to 4 kilograms).

3) Body condition score
This is an indicator to determine the muscle and fat mass of a tortoise. A desert tortoise with a prominent bony ridge on the top of its head is severely under condition, whereas one that cannot retract its head and limbs into its shell due to abundant subcutaneous fat stores is well over condition.

4) Shell
The shell of a tortoise is a specialized modification of skin. It contains nerves, blood vessels, and bone and is sensitive to trauma as well as metabolic derangements. The latter can be caused by an unbalanced diet and/or lack of natural sunlight or imitations thereof leading to soft and/or malformed shells.

5) Nares
The nares are inspected for exudate (runny nose) and erosions. Depending on the type and severity of the exudate, the tortoise may be suffering from an upper respiratory tract disease. Erosion around the nares indicates a more chronic disease process

6) Oral cavity
The mucous membranes of the oral cavity are examined for a healthy pink color, and the tongue is examined for presence of erosions and/or plaques. Tortoises with yellow, casseous plaques on their tongue may be suffering from a viral or bacterial infection.

7) Coelomic cavity palpation
By carefully pressing fingers into the soft skin area near the hind legs and into the shell cavity, an experienced examiner can determine whether there are masses in the coelomic cavity. Masses may include eggs or urinary bladder stones.

Why don’t we take their temperature? Tortoises, as other reptiles, are ectotherms: they do not control their body temperature as consistently as mammals but rely on environmental sources to regulate internal heating and cooling.

Identifying unhealthy tortoises is an important task at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas for individual animal and population health. The Center temporarily houses almost 2,000 tortoises, and each individual has to have a health check at least once a year. The goal is to release the tortoises into their native habitat, the Mojave Desert, to increase the wild population numbers. However, only healthy animals can be released to increase their chance of survival and minimize the risk of spreading disease. Unhealthy individuals are treated by San Diego Zoo Global veterinary medical staff.

Josephine Braun, D.V.M., is a scientist in San Diego Zoo Global’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories.

1

Tortoises: Into the Wild

Each released desert tortoise had a radio transmitter fixed to its carapace with epoxy.

Each released desert tortoise had a radio transmitter fixed to its carapace with epoxy.

It began early in the morning, before the sun peeked over the mountains. The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas was abuzz with activity as we prepared 32 desert tortoises for the journey of a lifetime. Little did these animals know that they were about to be brought to a new home. Many of them had been living at the DTCC for several years; some had even begun their lives as pets. Now, these tortoises would be released into the wild to try to help bolster the native populations as well as give them the chance to live their lives as wild tortoises.

When the tortoises were ready, we carried each to a preset location and placed it in a sheltered spot under a shrub.

When the tortoises were ready, we carried each to a preset location and placed it in a sheltered spot under a shrub.

After placing the tortoises in hay-lined totes, we loaded them into trucks and headed to Trout Canyon, a beautiful piece of Mojave Desert habitat over the mountains to the west of Las Vegas. Once on site, the tortoises were administered fluids to help them stay hydrated in the first weeks in their new home. We double-checked the frequencies of each tortoise’s radio transmitter to ensure we would be able to track them in the field over the coming weeks and months.

We watched the tortoises for several minutes after releasing them to see how they reacted to their new environments. As you might expect, many of them were reluctant to move for a little while, but some took to walking and started exploring their new home right away!

In the four weeks that have passed since the translocation, we’ve tracked the movements of all 32 tortoises we released, as well as 20 tortoises that were already living there. Some tortoises have stayed relatively near their release sites, exploring only about one or two football fields’ worth of the new neighborhood.

Caliche caves can act as rock burrows for tortoises, protecting them from predators and the elements.

Caliche caves can act as rock burrows for tortoises, protecting them from predators and the elements.

Shelter is a prime concern for tortoises, as they need to protect themselves from extremes of temperatures (both hot and cold) and from would-be predators like coyotes or ravens. Many of the tortoises we released have found temporary shelter under shrubs like creosote or white bursage and continue to move around in a relatively small range.

A few tortoises are taking up residence in existing burrows near their release site. The burrows may be abandoned or are occupied by accommodating neighbors. When suitable unoccupied burrows are unavailable, a few industrious tortoises have begun to dig their own.

Other tortoises have taken up shelter in caliche caves. One of the tortoises found the nearest cave to its release site and stayed there for over two weeks. Then, one day, he decided to start moving and has been walking for the past few days about a third of a mile (half a kilometer) a day.

We have tracked other tortoises traversing the landscape walking miles away from their release sites. They have covered rough terrain from windy creosote flats to rocky washes and steep mountain ridges. The end of the spring growth has provided some forage for the tortoises, and they need to take advantage and gather resources now before the heat of summer dries up the best nutrient sources.

We found a desert tortoise egg just outside a burrow.

We found a desert tortoise egg just outside a burrow.

Although the race is still on for who has traveled the farthest, one tortoise in particular has certainly moved with a purpose. She scaled steep rocky ridges and deep washes only reach the top and decide to cross the next ridge to the north. After weeks of walking, she finally took a few days off to rest. Apparently she had a mission in mind, as today we found her nesting under a blackbrush on a steep mountain ridge. She had already laid one egg; we could see it just outside the burrow!

The next few weeks will be important for the tortoises as the females continue to nest and they all settle in for the heat of summer, when they will only be active in the coolest parts of the day. Finding or building burrows in the soil or rocks is very important, as is foraging. A good rain or two would help bolster their water supply for the season, but we can only wait and see what the weather brings!

Ben Jurand is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read his previous post, Time for Tortoise Training.

4

Time for Tortoise Training

Ben prepares to take a blood sample from a desert tortoise.

Ben prepares to take a blood sample from a desert tortoise.

The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, Nevada, is gearing up for the spring translocation of a number of desert tortoises. We will be moving tortoises from the DTCC to a field location in the desert, where we will release them to help augment struggling wild populations.

Translocation is stressful on tortoises, because they need to adapt quickly to new surroundings, find shelter, and keep a lookout for both resources and predators. To give translocated tortoises the best chance of surviving in the wild, we need to make sure the animals are healthy and strong enough to be released. We also need to try to prevent them from spreading diseases to other tortoises in the wild.

As a new research associate at the DTCC, my first week included a lot of training. We were lucky to have several desert tortoise researchers and veterinarians visit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and San Diego Zoo Global to provide hands-on instruction on how to visually assess the health and condition of tortoises. We also learned how best to gather data and collect samples, including how to take oral and blood samples from the tortoises to test for diseases. We learned how to measure the size and weight of each tortoise, made notes about how their facial features and shells looked, and checked them for injuries or signs of illness.

DTCC staff take desert tortoise measurements.

DTCC staff take desert tortoise measurements.

Knowing their condition before we move them will help us track their progress over time in their new wild habitat. On some of the tortoises, we will be attaching radio transmitters to the upper part of their shell (called a carapace). After we have translocated the tortoises, we’ll be tracking their movements in the field and will monitor their health conditions in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

It is our hope that by continuing these studies, we will get a better understanding of how translocations affect the desert tortoises we move as well as their new tortoise neighbors.

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

5

Rain in the Mojave Desert

A desert tortoise prepares to snack on a desert mallow.

When most people think of the desert, they don’t think much about rain. Well, on August 22, the Mojave Desert experienced record-breaking rainfall, with some areas receiving well over 2.5 inches (6 centimeters) of rain within a 24-hour period, which caused major damage to the area. Most damage was due to washed-out roads and to low-lying property. But altogether, the desert had a much-needed drink for such a hot and dry summer.

Desert plantains have sprouted after record rainfall in the Mojave.

The aftermath of so much rain caused an explosion of plant life to appear throughout the desert. Some plants had not been seen in certain areas for many years. Plants such as the desert plantain Plantago ovate, desert mallow Spaerlcea ambigua, and golden bush from the genus Ericameria, just to name a few, started growing all over the desert. These plants are some of the desert tortoises’ favorite foods, which will help them have a full stomach before they go down for hibernation in the winter.

Daniel Essary is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read his previous post, Rabbits, Rodents, and Tortoises.

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.

4

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.

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.

16

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.