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Ames woman opens tortoise rescue

Almost two years ago, Kimberly Vanous decided to adopt a sick tortoise, which she later named Olive, into her Ames home.

What started as a way to try her hand at providing a home for a “unique” pet in need soon grew into the realization that few resources exist for tortoise owners when it comes to getting accurate information about correct care, diet and housing. According to Vanous, due to a lack of proper education on the part of owners, captive tortoises only tend to live 10-15 years, instead of the more than 100 years they have been known to live.

“If you get a baby tortoise as a pet, and it doesn’t out live you, you’re doing something wrong,” she said. “When I started keeping tortoises, I quickly realized they’re not a very common pet, but they’re a commonly neglected pet. I’m not talking about intentional neglect, it’s unintentional because I know all these pet owners care deeply about their animals. But there’s not very many resources out there for how to properly care for them.”

Since taking in her first tortoise, Vanous’ passion for the shelled creatures has since grown into a unique non-profit shelter in Ames, called Big and Small Tortoise Rescue and Sanctuary.

The rescue started out as a collection of “tortoise tables” scattered throughout Vanous’ home, filled with the six tortoises she adopted herself, and others she rescued. That is, until Vanous’ husband Adam built custom multi-level wooden enclosures that allowed three enclosures to fit in the place of one, which transformed a portion of the couple’s basement into a turtle sanctuary.

Since officially opening last August, Vanous now has 13 tortoises in her care; a total of nine have been surrendered to her, and two have been rehabilitated and adopted out.

Vanous said that the most common reason people surrender tortoises is young people going away to college and parents no longer being able to care for the pets, and owners realizing their pet has severe medical problems they are not equipped to handle. Too often, as a result, tortoises end up posted online on Craigslist, which is why Vanous said it is important for someone with more experience to be available.

“It’s really rewarding, and that’s why I think it’s really important what we’re doing,” Vanous said. “It’s always going to be small scale because it’s not a common pet, but the lack of resources and information out there is what makes us being around so important. I want people to know that this is a safe place for them to bring their tortoises.”

Vanous said she tries to keep each surrendered reptile in her care for two to three months, as that is the typical quarantine period during which symptoms of viruses or diseases will start to manifest. That way, whoever adopts the tortoise later on knows what is being dealt with.

As part of the rescue process, each day, Vanous sprays down the tortoises cages three times — as they require an environment high in humidity — cleans the cages, changes water bowls constantly and replenishes supplies of greens. In the summers, the tortoises at Big and Small Tortoise Rescue and Sanctuary spend all day outside grazing in an enclosure in Vanous’ yard.

“It is a lot of work, but it’s OK with me,” Vanous said. “I enjoy it. A lot of people tell me it’s just a silly turtle. But I feel like they’re very majestic animals. I just want to be there for them as much as I can. The people who have surrendered their tortoise to me, I think have expressed a lot of gratitude.”

Once her tortoises have been rehabilitated, they are put up for adoption on the rescue’s website, where potential adopters can fill out application forms. There are currently two tortoises up for adoption.

Vanous said her long term goal is to eventually relocate to a different home out in the country, where the rescue would be able to expand, as she is almost at capacity in her current house.

“The point of [the rescue’s] name was to say we will take all tortoises, but that’s kind of looking toward the future, because right now I don’t have the facilities to take in these larger species. But eventually I will.”