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Do you have room in your backyard and your heart for a Desert Tortoise?

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You may think your dog or cat are pretty unique characters, and maybe they are, but how would you like to have a pet so rare they are actually endangered? We are not talking about the cruel and illegal practice of keeping a smuggled slow loris or Hyacinthine Macaw as a pet, but rather becoming the state-sanctioned, legal guardian of a Desert Tortoise! These peaceful, often very amusing, reptiles desperately need our protection and care. Would you like to give a home to one of these shelled survivors?

Who are these tortoises and why do they need us?

According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Desert Tortoise Adoption Program booklet, "the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) was listed as Federally Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. Range-wide declines of their populations are associated with habitat degradation, disease, predation, and human-related mortality and collection. At one time, Utah’s population was considered one of the most dense and healthy, but fires in 2005 burned almost 15,000 acres, killing many tortoises and causing a population decline." Those who work construction in Southern Utah are familiar with the stringent laws regarding these little guys in the wild. Without a special permit, no one is allowed to touch, disturb, collect, or harm a wild tortoise or to disturb a tortoise burrow. Even tortoise remains cannot be collected. Desert tortoises, wild or domesticated, dead or alive, along with their eggs are not to be bought, sold, or taken across state lines.

However, through the UDWR’s adoption program, you may are allowed to possess a desert tortoise in the State of Utah through their fosting program. This unique experience is great for families or individuals who are responsible and have the ability to provide correct outside habitat.

Move over, Fluffy! We want Shelldon!

They aren't going to hop in your lap and purr when you come home, and your kids won't spend hours in the yard playing fetch with one. So why would you want a desert tortoise, or any tortoise, really, as a pet?

Pets are individuals, as are people, so it makes sense that not every family is the right fit for a dog or cat. Some people might find their best friend in round, hard shell! Here are just a few reasons a tortoise might be right for you.

  • Tortoises can have funny, quirky personalities. They are far from boring companions. In the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Newsletter, Krissy Wilson, native aquatic species coordinator for the DWR, says, "Every desert tortoise I've ever seen has had its own unique personality. You'll notice that after you get your tortoise home."
  • While they do need some specific set up (a 15' x 10' area, a burrow, planted "weeds," etc.), tortoises are easier to care for day to day than most other pets. "They don't bark or chase cats," says Wilson. "Also, they're in hibernation six months out of the year."
  • Being "eco-friendly" is all the rage. How awesome would it be to care directly for a threatened species? No need to study ecology and fly off to Borneo to live among orangutans! Your desert tortoise can live with you in the suburbs in any county in Utah (other than Washington, Kane, or Iron County.) as a cherished member of your household.
  • Are you vegetarian or Vegan? Many people who are feel uncomfortable feeding animal products to their pet. If your pet is a dog, cat, ferret, sugar glider, or other carnivorous or omnivorous species, feeding them an all plant source diet is not healthy for them, and may cause serious medical problems. However, a desert tortoise is a total herbivore (just like you, Greenies!) and would be thrilled with sharing some dressing-free salads of dandelions, clover, mustard greens, and other greens.
  • Do you spend your days ogling the displays at the Museum of Ancient Life and your weekends fossil hunting in the desert? Having a tortoise is so much like having your very own dinosaur, you might as well call it a Teacup Stegosaurus! (In fact, if you are feeling particularly silly, you can even dress him as such for special occasions with a custom made "tortoise cozy" by MossyTortoise on Etsy. Just make sure not to leave the knitted costume on your reptile friend or it could interfere with UV ray absorption!)
  • Have you recently had to say goodbye to soon to a small pet and are not ready in the least to face another trip to the Rainbow Bridge? While no living pet is immortal, tortoises live very long lives. Barring severe illness or tragic accident, your desert tortoise may even outlive you!
  • If your circumstances change and you can not care for your desert tortoise anymore, you do not have to find a new home for your pet. In fact, it is against the law to do so! Instead, you simply contact the UDWR and they will place her with another qualified applicant, or keep her in their facility.

Do you have what it takes?

Many first time tortoise owners get their tort, and their information, from a pet store. This often means their first tortoise is unhealthy, in an incorrect enclosure, being fed terrible pellets, and in general, is set up for failure! One fantastic benefit of adopting a desert tortoise through the state is that you will be given information on exactly how to care for your new shelled buddy; in fact, you are required to adhere to their correct standards of care as a condition of fostering one of these amazing endangered reptiles.

So exactly what is required to become a topnotch desert tortoise guardian? There are specific instructions in the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Desert Tortoise Adoption Program booklet but here are the basics:

  • Desert tortoises require large, fenced yards (a minimum of 150 square feet (that's 10'x15'))
  • Tortoise must not be able to reach an unfenced pool or pond. (Tortoises are not turtles, and drowning is a serious deadly risk!)
  • The tortoise requires a safe, secure home that protects it from theft. Housing a tortoise in a front yard (unless it is surrounded by a high, locked fence) may increase the risk of theft.
  • These tortoises need to hibernate indoors (such as in a garage, cellar, or unheated basement) from about October/November to March/April.
  • At times in the spring and fall, a tortoise will need to be kept outdoors in the day and indoors at night because it is too wet or chilly. You will need to have an indoor space to do so.
  • Tortoises need grasses, forbs, and flowers in their diet. Some of these plants are considered "weeds" around here, so you must be okay with allowing an area of your yard to run a little intentionally wild for the sake of your slowpoke. You can also supplement with some organic greens from the grocery store, but most commercial "tortoise foods" should be avoided at all cost.
  • Tortoises require access to burrows, shade and sunlight.
  • Adopted desert tortoises can never be returned to the wild. If you are unable to care for your foster, they must return to UDWR. You can not release your tortoise, sell it, or give it away.
  • Tortoises are great family pets! Kids can learn a lot by helping to care for a tortoise. However, tortoises are adopted by the adults where the tortoises will live. A child cannot be expected to assume full responsibility for care and will not be issued a Certificate of Registration.
  • Like other pets (even dogs and cats), pet reptiles may transmit Salmonella, and that includes tortoises. Always wash your hands after handling and supervise children around them
  • UDWR does not adopt tortoises smaller than 6” (Adoptees are typically 7”-12”). This may not be in direct response to the FDA's law on turtles under 4 inches in length, but it certainly is in harmony with it. Trafficking in these tiny, illegal reptiles, continues to be a rampant problem in Utah.
  • UDWR can not adopt tortoises to people in Washington, Kane, or Iron Counties. If you have a desert tortoise and move to one of these counties you must return them to their care.
  • Teachers: Conditions for tortoises are not suitable inside the classroom, but they do adopt to schools with adequate outdoor areas. If your school would like to pursue fostering a desert tortoise, contact Division of Wildlife Resources to discuss it.
  • Anyone interested in adoption is asked to first review the DWR-produced handbook on the animals, then fill out an application and contact the agency. There is an $80 fee for adoption, which is to help with paperwork and the vetting process.

That being said, they really need to place around 40 of these torts, some who have been at their facility for more than 10 years. In an effort to reach more of the potentially adopting public, Krissy Wilson spoke to the Deseret News about their need and encourages those interested to apply, even if it things aren't perfect. “We just work with people the best we can. It’s not always this cut-and-dry ‘You’ve gotta have it this way or else.’ We do what we can to work with folks to work with what they have available so they can adopt a desert tortoise,” she says.

They don't want to find themselves in the bind that Nevada had. The federal government has revealed plans to shut down the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Nevada, and their torts faced euthanasia or the release of domesticated tortoises that could negatively affect this delicate species' population in the wild. The Nevada center, who has also run a similar foster program for the tortoises, now has plans to relocate their healthy animals to other groups for care. It is very possible that some of these "Nevada Refugees" will end up here in the care of the Beehive State and willing adoptive pet parents like you.

We would love some reader response! Do any of you have plans to open your homes to one of these hard-shelled herps? If so we would love to hear how that is going! Also, if any of you have now, or have previously, cared for a desert tortoise, please share your experience!

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