Surplus of tame tortoises an Arizona wildlife crisis
When they see the faces of these desert-dwellers, many fall in love with them, but now owners are surrendering them in record numbers
A uniquely Arizona pet problem is becoming a crisis for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The Sonora Desert tortoise is a typical animal for our state but an atypical pet. Hundreds who have chosen to commit to raising these reptiles have been forced to return them, and it’s overwhelming agencies like Game and Fish.
« Right now in the system we have about 300 tortoises that need good homes, so we’re kind of in crisis mode right now, » said Ranger Amy Burnett.
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It’s a shell game finding room for newcomers at a north Phoenix Game and Fish facility where many of the surrendered creatures are being kept.
The Sonoran Desert tortoise is not an endangered species, but a booming pet population is putting them at risk of a life in captivity without loving families. Burnett says three or four were turned in just last week.
Many come from people who were raising one before real life got in the way.
« It’s a heartbreaking thing when you see them come here, tears in their eyes, and you try to comfort them, » said Daniel Marchand, curator at the Phoenix Herpetological Society, a private sanctuary which takes in surrendered reptiles.
But PHS can no longer take in tortoises due to the scope of the current problem.
Releasing them in the wild is not the answer, because one tame tortoise with a virus can kill an entire neighborhood of wild Sonoran Desert tortoises.
Then there’s the issue with people finding tortoises in the wild and turning them in to Game and Fish.
« We don’t want people turning in baby tortoises, » said Burnett. « They’re probably wild tortoises, so we want them to leave them in the wild. Obviously, if they’re in the middle of the road, move them to the side of the road, but please don’t turn in baby tortoises. Let them be in the wild so they don’t have to be in captivity. »
People « rescuing » wild tortoises, experts say, is a major part of this issue. They say you can easily figure out whether a tortoise is wild or someone’s pet that got away by trying to pet its head. If it lets you, it’s tame. A wild tortoise will pull back from you.
It’s illegal to catch and keep wild tortoises.
Ranger Burnett is trying to turn this tragic trend into an opportunity for Arizonans. They’re looking for adoptive families, but warn this is a major commitment. These desert-dwellers can live 75 years or longer.
They’re pretty hands off, but require a yard, some specific surroundings, annual vet checkups, and microchipping. They hibernate in winter, from about November to April.
Experts say they have plenty of personality, though. We’ve heard they can recognize human voices, and in one case, a pet tortoise knocks on the back door when she hears her owner returning from work.
The problem is so big right now that Game and Fish is not charging for adoptions. To get what you need to know about adopting and caring for a desert tortoise, visit:http://www.azgfd.gov/w_c/captive_tortoise_care.shtml, or call the adoption specialist at (623) 236-7269.