Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
(Pinal County, AZ) The Sonoran Desert tortoise named Thanos happily chomps lettuce from the hand of Tegan Wolf, the desert tortoise adoption program coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
When she tosses a few leaves to the tortoise in the next enclosure, the villainously named reptile clamors onto her boot, almost green with envy.
This possessiveness might turn off some potential pet owners, but Wolf just smiles before declaring that she’s adopting Thanos as soon as she buys a house.
While this scaly bad boy may be off the market, fear not, as 200 or so other Sonoran Desert tortoises still need permanent homes. According to Desert Tortoise Adoption Technician Corey Barr, each packs plenty of personality into its high-doomed shell.
“We all have our own favorites,” Barr explains. “I personally have my own tortoises at home, and they can be really great pets.”
Natural lives and unnatural threats
Sonoran Desert tortoises are plant-eaters found in the southwestern U.S, including Pinal County, and northwestern Mexico. They spend most of their lives in underground shelters, emerging mainly during the monsoon season.
While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opted not to protect the long-lived reptiles under the Endangered Species Act earlier this year, the Mojave Desert tortoise — a closely-related species — is protected.
Both animals face threats like habitat loss, vehicle strikes, drought, and upper respiratory infection.
This latter danger was first discovered in captive Mojave Desert tortoises in the 1970s. However, it's believed that improperly released animals spread the disease to wild populations, where it was first detected in the 1980s, according to the AZGFD's podcast, Wild About Arizona.
Soon, the disease spread to Sonoran Desert tortoises, which helped spur efforts to preserve and protect them. Thus, collecting Sonoran Desert tortoises from the wild was banned in Arizona in 1988.
Despite this, harvesting tortoises from the wild or breeding them in captivity continues. As these operations are discovered, the work of the adoption program grows.
The Sonoran Desert tortoise adoption program
Since captive tortoises can’t be released into their natural habitat due to the risk of spreading URI, the adoption program cares for the animals until they find permanent homes.
“When they come to us, every tortoise will get examined and looked at by a vet,” Barr said. “If we do have them come in with the upper respiratory infection, they are treated before we can put them up for adoption. Upper respiratory infection is never fully cured, they're always going to be at risk for catching it again, because that's just kind of the nature of the disease, but it is treatable.”
The program also accepts animals from owners who can no longer care for their pets or move out of state and from people who find runaways.
However, sometimes would-be good Samaritans accidentally grab wild tortoises, which can harm or even lead to the animal's death. A trick to help distinguish between the two is that all tortoises adopted through the program should have a small tag.
Last year, the program received over 400 tortoises, a record number.
Prepping for a pet tortoise
Welcoming a tortoise into your yard requires completing an online application and some manual labor.
“We need to make sure that the tortoise that we adopt out is going to be safe,” Barr explained. “If you have other tortoises, we need to ensure that they're not going to be kept in the same enclosure. If you have dogs, we ask that you try to keep the tortoise separate from them. If that's not an option, it's not an automatic no, we just ask that the owners be very vigilant about monitoring the interaction.”
If your yard includes potential tortoise hazards like pools or firepits, you must protect your pet from them, as they can drown or get flipped upside down, potentially causing nerve damage or even death. Most owners construct fenced-in enclosures, which vary in dimension depending on the size and age of their tortoise.
The program offers guidance on this and on what to plant inside to provide food and shade. For example, desert globemallow's orange flowers or the golden pedals of Arizona yellow bells are two of many native plants that pair well with a hungry tortoise.
However, the pink blooms of oleanders are toxic to tortoises, so it’s also important to know what not to plant.
Living naturally in Pinal County, the tortoises are well suited to the region’s climate, though they still require a burrow to keep them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The program has a video showing two possible construction methods, which is embedded above.
While this may sound like a lot of work, many people, especially children, enjoy learning about their local environment by observing these hardy desert animals up close.
To welcome a tortoise into your home, visit the Tortoise Adoption Program website.