By Dr. Becker
Sadly, while the desert tortoise can be hard to find these days in his natural habitat, hundreds of his captive cousins in Arizona, California and Nevada are in need of good homes. In fact, recently there were more than 200 desert tortoises in Southern California up for adoption. "There are so many tortoises in captivity, we can't place them all," Linda Crawford, adoption chairwoman of the Foothill chapter of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club, told the Press-Enterprise.1
It's Against the Law to Take Desert Tortoises From the Wild
Wild desert tortoises have natural ranges in four western states: Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. Each state has slightly different laws regarding the reptiles, but it's illegal in all four to remove a tortoise from the wild or release a captive tortoise outdoors. It's also against the law to buy and sell desert tortoises (though they can be "gifted" to another person), or to take them across state lines. In Arizona, it's illegal to pick up or even touch a wild desert tortoise.
Wild Desert Tortoises Are an Endangered Species
One of the reasons tortoises removed from the desert or born in captivity cannot be safely returned to their native habitat is because they're likely to spread disease to their wild counterparts. According to the Press-Enterprise:
"Tortoise populations have declined in the wild partly because of an upper respiratory infection caused by bacteria that spreads easily among different species of turtles and tortoises. The disease causes lesions in the animals' nasal passages, causing them to lose their appetites and sense of smell. Other reasons include the loss of habitat and increases in the number of coyotes and ravens, which prey on tortoises."2
Wildlife conservationists are concerned not only about the spread of upper respiratory infections among wild turtles, but also that captive tortoises released in the wild may introduce new, even more devastating pathogens.
Another challenge is that the reptiles have adapted to specific deserts. For example, Mojave Desert tortoises are genetically different from their Sonoran Desert counterparts. "The wrong genes should not be introduced to the wrong area," Roy Averill-Murray, desert tortoise recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Press-Enterprise.
Most of Today's Captive Desert Tortoises Were Taken From the Wild Almost 40 Years Ago
The present day abandoned tortoise problem was actually created decades ago by people who found and captured tortoises while walking or hiking in the desert. Many of the current homeless reptiles were either taken from the wild before 1990 or are descendants of those turtles. Many people who've removed the reptiles from the wild don't realize that desert tortoises can live to be 100, and often outlive their owners. They also breed in captivity.
In an effort to control the captive population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trains veterinarians to spay and neuter tortoises. They also strongly discourage backyard breeding. Averill-Murray has two messages when dealing with human interaction with desert tortoises: "One, keep captive tortoises captive. And two, keep wild tortoises wild."3
If You're Interested in Giving a Captive Desert Tortoise a Home
If you live in the desert southwest and are interested in adopting a homeless desert tortoise, check with your local tortoise rescues and clubs, as well as your local animal shelter.
Be forewarned there's a lot to think about and prepare for. Desert tortoises require specially equipped outdoor enclosures that provide for all their needs, including a burrow, and keep them safe from predators, other family pets and weather extremes. Tortoises shouldn't be housed indoors unless they're small or sick. Feeding the right diet is also very important and quite specific. For more information on adopting desert tortoises and how to properly care for them: