TUCSON (CN) – The arrival of spring nudges the desert tortoises at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum out of their hibernation burrows, and that means they are ready for a new home. Each year, the Desert Museum puts up for adoption as many as 90 rescue tortoises.
“Tortoises rotate through here,” said keeper Renee Lizotte. “They don’t stay very long.”
Most of the tortoises, or land-dwelling turtles, are abandoned pets that were born in captivity and might not survive in the wild, she said.
“If you go back 50 years in Tucson, people used to encounter the tortoises frequently and they took them home as pets,” Lizotte said. “So there is a very large population of people who have tortoises living in their back yards. They have more than one, and they produce baby tortoises, and then they get overwhelmed.”
The Desert Museum acts as an agent for the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s adoption program, which takes in tortoises and finds them homes throughout the state. At its Wildlife Center in Phoenix, the agency receives 350 to 400 tortoises annually.
“Right now we have about 120,” said Mike Demlong, a Game and Fish wildlife education program manager who said keeping the tortoises in captivity keeps diseases at bay in the wild population.
A desert tortoise is ideal for people who like a low-maintenance pet that will be around for a long time, he said. The cold-blooded critter, whose high-dome shell resembles a rock when it’s still, typically lives up to 80 years.
“Tortoises don’t require a lot of work and they can be charismatic,” Demlong said. “They just need some grass and native desert plants to graze on.”
Grazing on wildflowers is exactly what an adult tortoise that keepers call Betty Sue was doing at the Desert Museum recently. About 40 years old, she has lived there longer than many others because she arrived with a bladder stone. In need of surgery, she spent much time convalescing indoors.
“She’s a special case because of her situation,” said Lizotte, adding that all tortoises receive health checks before they are adopted.
Outside, young and adult tortoises slowly waking from their winter slumber poked their heads out of burrows. The enclosed area usually holds 15 to 30 tortoises at a time, Lizotte said.
An adult tortoise with part of a hind foot missing and with pink-and-blue streaks on its shell trudged along. Someone who found it wandering in the street brought it to the Desert Museum.
A dog probably chewed off the tortoise’s foot, Lizotte said. Dog owners are not precluded from adopting tortoises, but they must take steps to ensure their safety. Program volunteers make house visits to ensure that those interested in adopting tortoises have an appropriate, secure yard for the pets.
The notion that once adopted, tortoises will stay with their owners for years to come – and maybe be handed down to the next generation – thrills Lizotte.
“We like to see that,” she said.
The Desert Tortoise
Height: 4-6 inches
Length (shell): 9-15 inches
Weight: 8-15 pounds
Lifespan: 50-80 years