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abigaildesesaThe pet population problem is not a new subject. We are all aware there are too many dogs and cats in shelters and rescues. Too many roam neighborhoods without safe and caring homes, but these dogs and cats are not the only pets that are filling up our rescues.

Now we have turtles and tortoises appearing in our shelters on a regular basis, at times in great numbers. Here are the top three flooding our rescues and shelters:

First, there is the aquatic red ear slider, which is best known from the blockbuster movies, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” This is not a native aquatic turtle to our state (it’s imported primarily from Louisiana) and has been released into our local ponds and waterways for the past few decades by pet owners in increasing numbers.

The problem is twofold. California has its own native aquatic turtle that is listed on the Endangered Species list – the Western pond turtle. The red ear slider turtle is an aggressive, fast-growing turtle that is taking over the natural territory of our own more docile, endangered turtle.

When people buy these red ear slider turtles, often as tiny babies in tiny tanks, they quickly outgrow the small tanks. Our local rescues and shelters are bombarded with these turtles being turned in nonstop. The public is giving them up once they discover they do not stay small – even in those tiny tanks. Rescues have no more homes.

The writer's son Chis with a 200-pound sulcata.

The writer’s son Chis with a 200-pound sulcata.

For an idea of how great some of these numbers are from one rescue alone, see the California Turtle and Tortoise Club’s annual adoption statistics reports here –  http://www.tortoise.org/cttc/adoption.html – listed by year at the top of the page. For example, in 2011, there were 1,137, and in 2012, there were 1,056 red ear sliders taken in by the reporting chapters. That is only one kind of turtle or tortoise they deal with.

The second, quickly growing “giant” problem is the extremely fast-growing African sulcata tortoise, aka suburban time bombs. This tortoise has frequently been referred to as the latest disposable designer pet. Sulcatas are from the sub-Saharan regions of Africa and are the largest continental tortoises on the planet, often reaching the hefty size of 200 pounds. One female can easily reproduce 120 new hatchlings per year in captivity.

Sulcatas have a great success rate when bred and incubated here in the United States. In our local climate, many just walk right out of the ground, never needing to be incubated.

It is becoming common to see these tortoises turned into rescues once they reach an early age of 5 to 6 years old. Our animal shelters are not designed to hold these tortoises. Some male sulcata tortoises can already be pushing 40 pounds. If a shelter cannot properly hold a 40-pound sulcata tortoise, what do you think they are going to do with, say, a 150-pound tortoise?

The big deal about this tortoise is that they are highly destructive, as they do not walk around things. They go through and over and are known for digging long, large burrows underground, undermining suburban homes and driveways. They are strong and have become hard to contain because they need a large, reinforced habitat, which your average tract house simply does not have. The sulcata also needs to be kept warm, which runs up some good-sized electric bills.

Many of the sulcata tortoises that are turned in have experienced poor diet and improper housing from a lack of education, leading rescues to deal with health problems and pay for medical care. Rescues are trying to help educate the general public that this is not a good tract-housing backyard pet. It will get too large, too destructive, and it can outlive you. If you think a veterinarian bill for a dog or cat can be costly, wait until you see one for a reptile specialist.

Tripod the desert tortoise, a California Turtle and Tortoise Club rescue. Photo: Karen Berry

Tripod the desert tortoise, a California Turtle and Tortoise Club rescue. Photo: Karen Berry

The sulcata tortoise has reached numbers that have put authorities in many states in a tailspin. Some states are contemplating euthanizing these majestic bulldozers. There is legislation being proposed in other states to ban them and make them illegal to have all together, for everyone.

People have filled up rescues and shelters with sulcatas. Worse, they are escaping, or people are now releasing them into the wild in the United States. This endangers our next tortoise on the list:

The last one on the top-three list might surprise you. It is our own endangered native North American desert tortoise.

How can an endangered tortoise be a pet problem? Through illegal breeding of a long-living animal and many decades of taking them out of the wild. This tortoise is far from endangered in captivity.

Today, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, it is illegal to breed captive desert tortoises. The California Turtle and Tortoise Club is contracted to provide permits to people who do house the desert tortoise legally. The permit is free and required, but more often than not, people still do not obtain one. Even if a person has a permit, it is clearly spelled out on the back of the permit that they are not permitted to breed this tortoise.

Animal shelters are frowned upon when they receive this kind of tortoise because when they allow an animal to be adopted, there is a set fee. It is illegal to have a mandatory exchange of money for an endangered species.

This is a quick summary of what is not allowed: It is illegal to have a desert tortoise without a permit; to give or transfer it to another person; to move without obtaining a new permit; to take it out of the state; to sell it; to breed it; to release it back into the wild; and to take it out of the wild.

Many people don’t know why some of these rules exist, but many are vital. Obviously the reason to stop breeding them in captivity is the same as the first two: There are no more homes. The reason for not allowing them to be taken out of the wild is the simple fact that the wild population has drastically declined.

The one many don’t understand is not being allowed to release them back into the wild to help the wild population. The reason is because it does the exact opposite. Captive desert tortoises carry a highly contagious disease that infects the wild population and kills them off in massive numbers. It would often kill the captive tortoise, but many receive veterinarian care for this problem. They are never cured, but they are stabilized, allowing the majority to live a comfortable and long life. Some captive tortoises are only carriers and never suffer from the symptoms. One simple reason a pet owner should not want to release a tortoise is because it, too, will most likely die in less than a year in the wild. All around, it is a big death sentence.

The goal of rescues and shelters today is to educate the general public. Here are a few tips. Glass tanks or aquariums are extremely harmful habitats for any tortoise at any size. Please research “tortoise table” if you are going to get a small tortoise and want to find out about proper, safe housing. Do not use your local grocery store to feed your tortoise full-time. Honestly, there is no Ralph’s in the Mojave Desert or the sub-Saharan region.

Bigger is always better when planning a habitat for one of these two tortoises. Naturally they are explorers and wanderers, needing exercise to maintain their health.

If you think you want red ear slider turtle, make sure you have a pond or that you don’t mind having a 200-gallon aquarium and the expense of it in your home long-term. Consider (legally) adopting a tortoise or turtle instead of buying one from a store or breeder. As long as there is a customer out there for them, these animals will continue to be overbred.

If someone is selling you something for a tortoise, ask yourself if it would be a naturally occurring thing where they come from in the wild.

Last, please do your research before getting any turtle or tortoise. It is a very long-term commitment.

Here are some helpful, reputable links to consider researching for more information:

www.tortoise.org

www.ojaisulcataproject.org

www.donsdeserttortoises.com

To adopt a turtle or tortoise already in a rescue, please consider contacting your local California Turtle and Tortoise Club chapter or your local animal shelter.

 

Abigail DeSesa is a 15-year resident of Castaic, 2014 valedictorian of College of the Canyons, and a volunteer turtle and tortoise rescuer.

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12 Comments

  1. At the Castic shelter?

  2. I’ll take the tortoise

  3. I just got a red slider turtle from the Castaic animal shelter. They are not equipt for these animals. Rescue Rescue!!!

  4. I can help with tortoise also!

  5. Abigail says:

    Thank you Sandra!

  6. Jennifer Fields says:

    What a great article. There are so many great tortoises out there, that with some research you can find the one that is right for your family. Never buy at a pet store.

  7. Abigail says:

    Please contact your local California Turtle and Tortoise Club to get an application or check your local shelters. Both need homes.
    :-)

  8. Thanks Abigail for an informative article. Too many people acquire pets on a whim. A cute turtle in a container downtown, a puppy in a pet store window, Easter bunnies or chicks, etc. Then the novelty wears off and rescues and shelters are flooded. We all need to be responsible pet guardians. Pets are a long term commitment. Do a little research before taking on the commitment. And always rescue, rescue, rescue, never purchase.

  9. Greg Kimura says:

    Great article. Thanks for taking time to write it!

  10. Jim Cornall says:

    We (Tortoise Group) work with pet desert tortoises in Nevada, and the same issues so well put in this article are also the case here. It’s very easy to forget that this is an issue that occurs in multiple species, and multiple locations, and it doesn’t go away. Anyone reading this in Nevada is welcome to contact us about adoptions in this state. Thanks for publishing such a comprehensive and balanced article on these issues.

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