A fix for the desert tortoise

A fix for the desert tortoise

Prolific pets continue to threaten their wild cousins.


  • Jim Cornall, executive director of the Tortoise Group, holds a desert tortoise ready for sterilization surgery at Oquendo Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Christi Turner

    In a long hallway at Las Vegas’ Oquendo Center, a renowned veterinary training facility, dozens of plastic totes are lined up against a wall. Each holds a single Mojave desert tortoise, a threatened species. This is pre-op: The nearly 60 tortoises, rescued from captivity, are pioneers in Nevada’s new strategy to help stem the state’s captive tortoise problem. They’re waiting to be sterilized.

Sterilizing members of a species you’re trying to save may sound weird, but there’s a reason for it. Pet, or “captive,” tortoises were exempted from the 1990 Endangered Species Act listing of the Mojave desert tortoise, an unconventional arrangement designed to allow Southwesterners to keep any tortoises they already had in their backyards. Even as the wild population faces habitat loss and fragmentation, caused primarily by development, tortoises thrive in captivity.

“People don’t intend to breed them,” Jim Cornall, the director of the nonprofit Tortoise Group, the state’s officially sanctioned tortoise adoption program, says. “But a backyard can quickly end up with 10 tortoises in it, and then gets out of control.”

Nobody knows exactly how many pet tortoises are in Nevada, but estimates run to the tens of thousands. Despite public education efforts and a 2013 one-tortoise-per-household policy, untold numbers mingle in Nevada backyards. And when people dump unwanted pets or their offspring in the desert, those tortoises compete with the fragile wild population and frequently spread diseases — one of many reasons why dealing with them diverts resources needed for wild tortoises.

Because of budget cuts, those resources are becoming increasingly scant. The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center outside Las Vegas, which was established in 1990 as a research facility for wild tortoises but became increasingly overrun with pets, will close this month. That means organizations like the Tortoise Group are forced to find new methods to deal with captive tortoises in ways that don’t harm wild ones. Which is why it is helping train regional vets to sterilize pet tortoises, hoping that even if captive animals are later released, they won’t produce offspring to compete with wild tortoises.

“This is all excellent experience,” one of the vets, Janet Maker, tells me, smiling in her scrubs one morning in late August. Maker has 25 years in reptile medicine, but before today, she’s never done this kind of procedure on a Mojave desert tortoise. Aside from the two trainers leading the clinic, few veterinarians ever have.

Now she has it down pat. First, her technician injects a sedative and anesthetic. Tortoises don’t breathe easily under anesthesia; females are intubated to help them through the longer sedation they require. Maker turns a female tortoise onto her back and makes an incision where the leg meets the underbelly. “You go in with the endoscope and forceps, grab the ovaries, pull them out, and remove them,” she says. For an endoscope-free sterilization, Maker turns a tortoise on its side, makes a similar cut, finds the fallopian tubes — “the first organ you see, solid muscle” — pulls the ovaries out, snips and sews.

In post-op, Maker rotates the tortoise onto its feet, warms it and eases it awake. Her tech removes the breathing tubes and pumps the tortoise’s forearms gently in and out — the animal’s natural way of compensating for its lack of a diaphragm — and recovery begins. Female sterilizations generally require 45 minutes and four sutures. Males take around 15 minutes, no stitches. In a single day, all the tortoises here are sterilized, and by the weekend all but a handful are stable. They’ll be adopted out, captive still, but no longer breeding.