Sterilization clinic set for endangered tortoise

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials will hold a clinic in Las Vegas later this month with an unusual goal in mind: Curb the breeding of a federally protected species they are also trying to save.

The agency is inviting veterinarians from Nevada, Arizona, California and Utah to attend a first-ever desert tortoise sterilization clinic, a two-day event to teach new techniques that could help slow backyard breeding of the reptile.

Officials say the growing population of unwanted pet tortoises is a management problem, diverting resources from efforts to preserve the species in the wild.

Uncontrolled backyard breeding also threatens native populations because captive tortoises can carry diseases with them when they escape or are released illegally in the desert.

Nevada law allows just one pet tortoise per household, but the measure adopted last year grandfathered in those who already had more.

Sterilization is one way to bring the captive population under control, said Mike Senn, assistant field supervisor for the Fish & Wildlife Service in Nevada.

Senn said it can be “a really difficult issue” to explain to people, but it comes down to this: Simply breeding more tortoises won’t save the species in the long term if not enough is done to improve and protect natural habitat and address threats in the wild.

The clinic will be Aug. 27-28 at the Oquendo Center, a medical training and events venue off Eastern Avenue near McCarran International Airport. There, about a dozen veterinarians, most of them from Nevada, will receive hands-on training in new tortoise sterilization techniques from the experts who pioneered them: Dr. Jay Johnson of the Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital and two researchers from the University of Georgia, Dr. Stephen Divers and Dr. Laila Proenca, who used tortoises shipped from Nevada for their work.

Veterinarians trained at the clinic will be able to perform the procedures in their private practice and, Senn hopes, at future events where pet owners cab get their tortoises fixed for free — or at a reduced rate.

More than 50 tortoises will be sterilized during the clinic, and wildlife officials are seeking new post-op homes for the animals. The nonprofit Tortoise Group is handling the adoptions. Those wishing to adopt or learn more about tortoise ownership and care may do so through the organization’s website,

“The first-ever sterilized tortoises will be available for placement in early September, and we need about 50 good homes in southern and northern Nevada,” said Jim Cornall, executive director for the Tortoise Group.

Sterilizing tortoises was a complicated and invasive process, but Senn said new techniques are considered low-risk and effective.

“For the males it’s pretty straightforward” and can be done pretty much any time the animals are active, Cornall said. The work is “a bit more involved” for females and must be done when they are in breeding condition, generally in July and August.

Some of the tortoises to be operated on during the clinic came from a single crop of about 50 that were living in a local backyard until their primary caretaker died — exactly the sort of situation wildlife managers and tortoise rescue groups hope to avoid in the future.

Other patients will be provided by the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, a 220-acre facility established 20 years ago at the valley’s southwestern edge as a place for developers to put the federally protected animals after removing them from job sites in booming Clark County.

The center is the valley’s de facto tortoise shelter, taking in as many as 1,000 unwanted tortoises each year and racking up about $1 million in costs that otherwise could have been spent on research and recovery work, Senn said.

The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center will close at the end of the year, when it’s funding runs out.