‘We’re definitely in tortoise crisis mode’: 8 things to know about desert tortoise adoptions
Arizona Game and Fish has nearly 100 Desert Tortoises they want to place for adoption. David Wallace/azcentral.com
Looking for a unique pet? Consider the desert tortoise.
Officials with Arizona Game and Fish said Wednesday they are facing a « tortoise crisis » and have nearly 90 of the reptiles that need placement in good homes.
The agency, which held a media availability Wednesday as it gave the tortoises health checks, said illegal backyard breeding and improper capturing of the tortoises in the wild has created a massive problem.
The tortoises needing homes range from palm-sized juveniles (so cute) to full-grown adults that weigh more than 15 pounds.
The agency has designated April 9 as « Tortoise Adoption Day » in Arizona. Arizona Game and Fish is already accepting applications to adopt a tortoise. And if you want one, you do have to fill out the application. Tortoise adoption day is invitation only for those who have been pre-screened.
« They need our help, » said Amy Burnett, a spokeswoman for Arizona Game and Fish. « They need good homes. We’re definitely in tortoise crisis mode. »
The application process includes a providing photo documentation of a prepared habitat for a tortoise. In some cases, a tortoise adoption expert may need to visit your home to conduct a closer inspection. The application and adoption process is completely free.
Tortoises can only be adopted by permanent Arizona residents living within the tortoises’ native range which includes Phoenix, Bullhead City, Kingman, Lake Havasu, Tucson and Yuma.
If you’re interested in adopting a desert tortoise, here’s what you need to know before taking one home.
1. Set up the right environment
A desert tortoise needs a secure, enclosed habitat with at least one shelter. The recommended size is at least 18′ x 18′ with a 6′ x 6′ patch of grass. It needs to gives access to sun, shade, water and dry ground.
Tortoises are reptiles, so they are unable to regulate their body temperature. The area should also have an insulated, thick-walled shelter where a tortoise can take refuge from temperatures that are too hot or too cold.
It’s also important for your shelter to have a high and dry spot where the tortoise can stay dry when it rains. This is important because a damp den can cause respiratory issues.
If your backyard has a chain link fence, your tortoise can see out of the enclosure and may try to escape. Build a visual barrier to prevent that from happening.
2. Beware of hazards: dogs, pools
Those interested in adopting a tortoise should have an enclosed area in their yard free from potential hazards like dogs, a pool or other species of turtles and tortoises.
- Even the most well-behaved dogs have attacked desert tortoises and caused serious damage. It’s important to allow time for all animals to get acclimated with each other.
- Desert tortoises cannot swim, so be sure to keep all pools, spas or fish ponds fenced. A tortoise will drown if it falls in the water.
- It’s also essential to keep a desert tortoise separate from other species of tortoise or turtle because fatal diseases and parasites can spread among species.
- Do not use dry fertilizer, snail bat, weed sprays or pest sprays in your tortoise’s enclosure. Pest control chemicals can kill tortoises.
3. Tortoises are herbivores
Tortoises only need to eat plants. DO NOT feed your pet dog food or cat food – this can cause liver and kidney damage and a deformed shell.
Plants grown in your own backyard are most nutritious for tortoises. They also enjoy eating prickly pear cactus fruit, though fruit should only be fed in small amounts since they are high in sugar and water.
Do not feed tortoises frozen vegetables or food that is sodium rich like canned vegetables, dairy products, breads and celery.
Though a tortoise will get most of it’s water from the food it eats, it’s also important to make sure your tortoise has plenty of water. Tortoises also enjoy soaking in water, so be sure to have a dish that is wide enough and deep enough for your tortoise to sit in.
Tortoises typically hibernate from October through March and will not emerge from their shelter.
Healthy tortoises should be allowed to hibernate in shelters outside, though if the tortoise doesn’t move into the shelter by the time the temperatures hit below 50 degrees or if you’re unsure if the shelter will stay dry, a garage would be a good indoor alternative.
During dry winters, a tortoise is at risk for dehydration. Soak your tortoise in a couple inches of water for about 20 minutes before they hibernate.
5. Tortoises are low maintenance – but still have personality
Tortoises are much more low maintenance than other household pets. This means if you have the proper habitat set up, you can leave a tortoise at home for a few days while going on vacation.
But that doesn’t mean that tortoises are boring. They still have personalities, and make for interesting and unique pets. One tortoise at the Phoenix Zoo even posed for a selfie.
« They’re surprisingly responsive to humans. They can recognize people’s voices, » Burnett said. « Some tortoises will even come ‘running’ when called. »
Because of the large surplus of tortoises, it is illegal to breed more. Families who want more than one tortoise will either need to adopt ones of the same gender or take steps to ensure they don’t breed; such as keeping them separate or having one sterilized by a veterinarian.
7. Have a plan for long term care
Tortoises live much longer than the average house hold pet – some can live up to 100 years.
« Adopting a tortoise is a lifetime commitment, » Burnett said. Tortoises are often kept in families for generations or even included in people’s wills.
Desert tortoises must stay in their native area, so if you’re hoping to move away from Arizona in the future, realize that these desert creatures can’t go with you.
There are four state-sanctioned desert tortoise adoption facilities that will accept tortoises that can no longer be cared for by an adoptive family if they are looking to leave the state or if the owner passes away.
8. Do not release a captive tortoise back into the wild
It is illegal to release a captive tortoise into the wild, so be sure you want to keep it before deciding to apply for adoption. Not adhering to this rule can harm the population of wild tortoises by spreading disease and disrupting the genetics in wild populations. It’s also illegal remove a tortoise from the wild so be sure to go through the adoption process properly.