Desert Tortoise Hotline

A DTCC staff member on a pickup service call

This year is starting out to be quite busy for the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), located in Las Vegas. We are now operating the DTCC Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline/Pickup Service that complements Clark County’s Wild Desert Tortoise Pickup Service. Clark County operated both services until December 31, 2009, picking up desert tortoises that people found on development sites, tortoises in harm’s way (such as along a highway), or unwanted or found pet desert tortoises wandering in developed areas. Starting January 1, 2010, Clark County continues to pick up wild tortoises found on development sites, but the DTCC now picks up surrendered pet tortoises and tortoises found in already developed areas.

Last year, we received approximately 1,000 tortoises from the pickup service, and most were unwanted pets. We are anticipating that the number will increase this year as we reach out to educate the public about proper captive care for these special animals.

Angie takes a call on the hotline.

We take calls from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the week, including weekends. When someone calls the DTCC Pet Desert Tortoise  Service, the phone is answered by one of two dedicated hotline staff members, and if they miss the call or the call comes in after hours, a staff member returns the call as soon as possible. Staff briefly ask for general information regarding the tortoise’s condition to make sure it doesn’t need immediate medical attention, and they schedule the pickup, requesting the caller’s address. At the time of the pickup, staff try to gather as much information as possible from the caller regarding the history of the tortoise. This information helps us to better care for the animal and gives us a great opportunity to educate the public about captive care and conservation of wild desert tortoises.

We are excited to start educating pet desert tortoise owners about captive care because we know this is a crucial step in ensuring the health of captive tortoises. A great majority of pet desert tortoises we received from the hotline last year were not healthy animals; interestingly, most had health issues that could have been prevented with small changes to nutrition and housing. With the San Diego Zoo operating the DTCC Pet Desert Tortoise Pickup Service, we will get the chance to talk to people face to face and address these issues. We also plan to offer a captive-care class at the DTCC. The topics we will be discussing include:

– Proper feeding and watering of pet desert tortoises
– Burrow construction
– Toxic plants in your yard
– Importance of desert tortoises living outside
– Brumation (hibernation)
– Sexing your desert tortoise
– Desert tortoises living with other domestic pets

We will also conduct health assessments on pet desert tortoises and be able to recommend tortoise veterinarians in the Las Vegas area. The class will be another way for us to get the word out about conservation of the desert tortoise. Our hope is that as the word spreads, we can begin to understand how many pet desert tortoises there are in the Las Vegas area, and we can make strides in decreasing that number.

We would like to coordinate with veterinarians and other local businesses to arrange for them to serve as authorized drop-off locations for the hotline around the Las Vegas Valley. These locations will help ease the demands on the pickup service staff, especially during our peak season from April to October. It will also provide pet desert tortoise owners anonymity when dropping off tortoises, so those who hesitate to call the hotline because they are required to provide an address and phone number may be more likely to turn in their pet desert tortoises.

We are looking forward to the New Year and new endeavors, and the new hotline will help us to spread our message of desert tortoise conservation all over southern Nevada and beyond!

IMPORTANT NOTE: It is against the law to remove a desert tortoise from the desert! If you come across one, even if it is a hatchling and seems helpless, it is healthier for the tortoise to stay in the wild than to be disturbed and brought to the DTCC. The wild desert tortoises that Clark County picks up only come from development sites and are removed by authorized biologists that are permitted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Angie Sawyer is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous post, We Love Volunteers.

4 Responses to Desert Tortoise Hotline

  1. Great job you’re doing. The captive care class is such a good idea. It would be great if you could make the class material available in some form for those who aren’t in the Las Vegas area. Even though I’ve had a tortoise for 30+ years, I’ve learned several things from these blogs that I didn’t know regarding tortoise care. On the internet there seems to be so much conflicting information regarding care. It would be great to get the information from a trusted source.

  2. Your doing a great thing. Hey i live in new york and a year or so ago i recived a tortoise i belive its a russian desert tortoise or thats wat the picture online looked liked. i wanted to know if your organization would be able to take him. i like having it but i think the changing climate is not suttible for him cause during the winter it stays in the basment of my house only to come out on the occasional sunny day till summer comes. he seems to be in good health oas of now but i want him to have a happy safe long life. can use help??

    DTCC Team responds: We wish we could help, but we are technically only supposed to take in desert tortoises from southern Nevada. We also take in other turtles and tortoises from residents in southern Nevada to make sure that they are not released into the desert or Lake Mead, where they can spread disease, die, or wreak havoc on our native environment, but this is not part of our overall mission here, and we do not receive any funding to do this – we just want to make sure the animals and our environment are safe.

    For you and anyone else that is interested in giving up your turtle or tortoise, and you want to make sure it has a safe new home, your best bet is to contact a local turtle and tortoise rescue group. You can usually do a Web search and find one in your area. Make sure that their policy is NOT to sell or breed the animals, and you should ask if they do home checks to make sure the animals go to good homes. This is actually what we do here – when we receive non-native species, we work with turtle and tortoise rescue groups all over the country to make sure they are placed in good homes.

    Michael, we are so happy to hear that you have your tortoise’s best interests at heart. You’re absolutely right about the climate in New York – it’s not right for Russian tortoises. They are desert adapted and would do much better out West. You are not alone in this. Literally thousands of turtles and tortoises are purchased from pet stores all over the country and given away as prizes because they are really cute when they’re little and very inexpensive to buy, but when the owners find out how long the animals live and realize they cannot provide for them properly, the animals are often turned loose in public parks and waterways or simply neglected in the home. In most cases, the animals simply suffer until they die. Owners like you who want the best for their animals turn them over to rescue organizations, but this means that rescue groups are absolutely flooded with these animals.

    For anyone who is interested in having a turtle or a tortoise for a pet, please adopt one from a rescue group instead of buying one, because when you purchase one from a pet store, you are supporting a pet trade that encourages the continued unnecessary breeding of these animals, or worse yet, you may be supporting the practice of taking these amazing animals from the wild all over the world – pet stores will not tell you where they came from. We hope that you and everyone reading our blogs value turtles and tortoises as much as we do, and that you will help in our efforts to protect them and educate people about why having them as pets is a huge and expensive commitment.

    Thanks so much for your message Michael. Please let us know when you find a rescue group to take your tortoise, and be assured that you are definitely doing the right thing!

  3. Thanks for the education on Desert Tortoises, Angie.

    Michael I hope you find a special home for your Russian tortoise. It deserves a home that is most suited to its needs, and you are to be commended for recognizing that New York is not conducive to those needs.

  4. I called the outline the first week of June and had a tortoise pickup. His name was Tom. We rescued him from a group of young children. Can you give me an update on him?

    Desert Tortoise Team responds: Thank you for your inquiry. Unfortunately, the Desert Tortoise Center receives hundreds of tortoises each month, and we are unable to respond to all inquiries regarding their status.