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.
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.