Desert Tortoise: NOT Apartment-friendly Pet

A desert tortoise in its natural habitat.

I’m happy to say the Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline is giving us the opportunity to save more stray and unwanted desert tortoises and educate folks on the proper care for their pet tortoises. Manned by staff at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas, we’re also really excited to have a new employee join the team! Marissa Musso has come on board as the hotline assistant, and she’s doing a great job out on the front lines educating and working with the public. Marissa’s excellent people skills and cheerful demeanor have been a great asset for many of our hotline calls, especially when we’re faced with challenging cases of extreme pet desert tortoise neglect.

A desert tortoise enters a manmade burrow at the DTCC.

For each hotline call that comes in to the DTCC, it’s always a coin toss for what we’ll find at the actual pickup site. Sometimes we knock on the door and see great examples of the awesome care tortoises can receive in a home, especially when the custodian is providing the proper diet and environment. Simply put, a healthy and happy pet desert tortoise is living outside with lots of natural sunlight in a spacious yard with a burrow and plenty of native plants to eat like desert dandelion, globemallow, and desert primrose. Unfortunately, more often we see sad cases of extreme tortoise neglect, some that require a large box of Kleenex at the end of the day. This has been the case with several pickups we’ve done recently at apartment buildings.

The Mojave Desert is known for its extreme temperatures, and Las Vegas is no exception, but one spring day several weeks ago was one of the rare few that rested in the 80-degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) range. It was a perfect day, until I received a hotline call from a person living in a small apartment with three desert tortoises. I was shocked to learn one of the tortoises had recently died from an apparent case of predation; all three had been living on a small, concrete patio with a cardboard box for a “burrow.” The caller informed me that the largest tortoise had been killed by a raven, and he wanted to surrender the other two. What made this even more upsetting was that I had already visited this caller and had tried to educate him on how important it is for a pet tortoise to have a yard with a burrow. In fact, a desert tortoise spends 95 percent of its life in a burrow where it gets protection from harsh weather and predators.

Even after desperately trying to explain how his tortoises would not survive the summer living on a 2’ x 4’ patio and hoping he would surrender them to the DTCC, the custodian still decided to keep them. You can imagine what a hard day it was, having to leave empty handed and knowing both tortoises would have a slim chance for survival. So when I got the call to pick up the remaining two, I quickly drove to the apartment only to find them in even worse condition.

Both tortoises could barely move; all of their limbs were hanging out of their shell. They had labored breathing and could hardly open their eyes. Before giving the caller any time to change his mind, I scooped them up and drove them quickly back to the DTCC, wishing that our hotline vehicle was equipped with an ambulance siren. After being evaluated by our veterinarian, it was determined that these animals had been suffering for years and were only barely alive by the time I had picked them up. They were in advanced organ failure with no hope of living a comfortable life, all because they lived on a patio with no burrow and inadequate heat and light from the sun.

All of this could have been avoided had the custodian realized he couldn’t provide the right environment for a desert tortoise. When a desert tortoise is living in the wild in our wonderful Mojave Desert, they take great care of themselves. But as pets, tortoises depend on us to care for them and provide the right diet and environment. As most responsible custodians know, caring for a desert tortoise properly can be quite time consuming and extensive; they don’t make the best pet for every situation.

Lori Scott is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read her previous blog, Desert Tortoise: Big Guy.

15 Responses to Desert Tortoise: NOT Apartment-friendly Pet

  1. A sad story…. I don’t know why people think exotic animals make good pets when very few people know or want to take the time to learn how to properly care for them. I recently read in our local newspaper about our governor passing a law to sell reptiles within the state. The comments from the sellers were disheartening to say the least.. They were more concerned about their “lost of income” like these animals were just a commodity.. not living, breathing creatures.

    The animals are blessed to have people like you to rescue and offer them a second chance. Keep it up!! :-)

  2. Clarification: The law is to prevent the sale of certain animals where the sellers responded saying they will just have to other states where it is allowed.

  3. Heartbreaking and infuriating!

    I admire your ability to stay under control when you experience animal cruelty like this. I hope you get all the publicity you need to educate the public that desert tortoises are NOT suitable pets.

    Marissa, a lot of tortoises out there are counting on you to protect them.

  4. This story was really hard to read. But I did want to thank you for the work that you.

  5. I’m in Southern California and my wife and I adopted a Texas Desert Tortoise, Piedmont, from Casa de Tortuga. Adopted, not purchased, it’s illegal in California to buy or sell desert tortoises. Casa de Tortuga is a licensed and trained adoption agency and rescue center. You have an application and site visit before you are even put on the waiting list. They teach you how to care for the tortoise before you can adopt one. Piedmont was a very cool critter to have around and we were blessed with the chance to care for him. We couldn’t imagine allowing him to be in a position of vulnerability and when Fire Ants were found about 5 miles from our home, we took him back to Casa de Tortuga so that he could be safe. Anyone who wants to take care of one of these magnificent animals needs to understand the care and diet requirements before they try to adopt. This was a very sad story to read about and I’m not sure how well I would have handled the situation of finding them is such poor condition. God bless you for your control.

  6. Coincidentally, we have seen two huge desert tortoises in the past month alone, where we live. I saw one crossing the street, and was very concerned and wanted to help it!! A separate time, my husband spotted yet another one. We reside in Los Angeles county, so I am curious if there are any Tortoise Rescue groups in the CA area? Tortoises are absolutely awesome creatures – I want to be able to help the next time I spot one.

  7. I own a tortoise. This year he woke in March. Hasn’t eaten ANYTHING. Very skinny, no chunkyness around shoulders….any suggestions as to what to do? I have had him about 10 years now.

    Desert Tortoise Team responds: This sounds very serious. If your tortoise has not eaten by April, it is best to see a tortoise veterinarian right away to make sure the tortoise doesn’t have a blockage or some kind of infection. Be sure to write down details, including his condition before he went into hibernation, if he was awoken from hibernation for any reason during the winter, and a history of his weight loss.

    I encourage anyone who keeps desert tortoises as pets to treat them medically the same way you would treat your dog, cat, or bird, but see a vet even sooner if you notice something is wrong. Make sure you weigh your tortoise every month during the active season, and keep a journal as soon as you notice that his eating habits or behavior have changed, even if you don’t think it’s a big deal at the time. Remember that it takes a very long time for a tortoise to actually show signs or symptoms that they are sick or that something is not quite right, so the sooner you notice changes and get to the vet, the better chance you’ll have at being able to successfully treat the illness or condition. Best of luck with your tortoise; please let us know what the vet says.

  8. I too live in So. California and I have had two desert tortoises for over 15 years now. They were given to my kids when they were little and now both kids are in college and I take care of these great animals. They have their own yard and a burrow for the summer time, but I do take them indoors in the winter. Is that alright to take them in during hibernation? I worry about large preditors in the area (racoons, possumes, cats).

  9. How do you tell how old a tortoise is? My mom rescued “Slow Poke” at least 40 + years ago, and now that both Mom and Dad are gone, we now have him. He is a very energetic male, who does not like dogs (he charges them) and is very particular about what he will eat. He only likes romaine lettuce, hibiscus flowers, dandelions and corn on the cob. I have tried fruits, melons, tortoise food, hamburger, various greens but he doesn’t like them. We live in San Diego, CA now (three years), having lived in the Fresno area where summers are really hot and winters really cold. Although I take Slow Poke out into a play area so that he can roam around and get sun, most of the time he is on our 12×12 patio. Because he eats so much romaine, he shows no interest in water. He is soooo curious, checking everything out and does his best to open the patio door so that he can come inside. We love him so much but I do worry about whether or not I am doing all I can to keep him healthy. It is good to know there is someone I can contact if for any reason, we can no longer care for him or if something happens to me. Thank you for this website and hot line.

  10. Over 45 years ago, my husband was given 3 desert tortoises by people who were going to abandon them in a cemetery. 5 years later a neighbor gave him one of their surviving pair. Thinking we were helping by allowing them to mate and incubate the eggs, we now have a captive, healthy population of over 30 desert tortoises – all legally registered and licensed with the US Dept of Fish and Games. There was no problem with housing them until the males started fighting. We now no longer have the space to incubate the eggs and have made arrangements for our bale to be cared for since most of them will survive us. We have three generations and know that while wrong to keep them as pets, they are well cared for and have medical care as needed. Our long term hope was always that there would be reintroduction to the wild, but we are not in Nevada and can only work to preserve our bale for the future of this remarkable species.

  11. Interesting!

  12. All of you have such great questions!

    Susan, yes, it is perfectly okay to bring your tortoises inside to hibernate in winter. It’s best to put him in a box in the garage where the temps are cool and there are few, if any, noises and distractions. A hibernating tortoise should never be woken up because it can be physiologically damaging to them.

    Sandi, it’s really tough to age a tortoise, so we can only say that they are hatchlings, juveniles, subadults, adults, or really old adults! I am concerned about your tortoise spending most of his time on your patio. Tortoises, both captive and wild, spend 95% of their lives in burrows and without one, he is not able to thermoregulate properly, which can contribute to a number of different health conditions, especially if his diet consists primarily of lettuce. Please note that you should never give a desert tortoise any kind of meat because they are not equipped to digest it, and lettuce does not provide the nutrients a tortoise needs to be healthy, so you may want to consider other options for his diet. Also, tortoises need water, regardless of their diet, so it’s important to make sure he’s drinking on a regular basis. Feel free to call the hotline if you have any questions about his diet.

    And lastly, Micah … wow that’s a lot of tortoises! It’s great that you have cared for them so well. I encourage you to separate the males and females so no more hatchlings come about, especially since they are all mating with their relatives, but since females store sperm, you likely will have another 15 years of babies to look forward to from your girls!

  13. Thank you for responding to my question and for advising me on the care of Slow Poke. I will try to introduce more veggies and water. Slow Poke comes out into the sun for awhile but goes into his house every afternoon at about the same time and then may come back out for awhile before going to bed for the night. I do realize now how important it is to let him wander around more in the sun during the day but he pretty well lets me know when he’s done so that I put him back on the patio where he usually goes to bed for awhile.

    Thanks again. I am sooo excited about reading the questions and answers available here and the information available about the care of my tortoise!

  14. I have one more question…your reserve is in Las Vegas although you are a part of the San Diego Zoo. I live in San Diego. Is there someplace here that would take my tortoise if something should happen to me or if I have to give him up? I read the blog that says it is illegal to cross state lines with him so what would I do? We have had him since 1964 or 1965 when my mom rescued him while he was crossing the road on her way to Barstow, California.

    Thanks!

    Desert Tortoise Team responds: Great question! You should call your local turtle/tortoise rescue organizations such as CA Turtle and Tortoise Club or San Diego Turtle and Tortoise Society, and they should be able to help you. Best of luck!

  15. Thanks to everyone for all of your wonderful comments!

    Kelli, thank you for your excellent question, you bring up a great point! If you come across a desert tortoise in a residential area in California, you can contact your local chapter of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club (CTTC). This organization is not affiliated with the DTCC, but they do work with the California Department of Fish and Game and are legally able to accept CA desert tortoises. If you see a desert tortoise crossing the road in an undeveloped area and it appears to be in harm’s way, you can move the tortoise across the road in the direction it is traveling. To safely move a tortoise, approach from the front, hold the tortoise with both hands (one hand on each side of the shell), keeping it level and low to the ground while gently walking it several yards beyond the side of the road. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly after touching any tortoise! Keep in mind if you see a wild tortoise in the desert that is not in harm’s way you should not approach it. If a tortoise becomes frightened, it may empty its bladder as a defense mechanism. Since tortoises store water in their bladder for the dry season, the loss of fluid could cause dehydration over many months.

    Sandi, yes, if at any time you can no longer keep your desert tortoise you can contact the California Turtle and Tortoise Club (CTTC) or the San Diego Turtle and Tortoise Society (SDTTS). These organizations are not affiliated with the DTCC, but they are both great resources for folks with pet desert tortoises living in California.

    Thanks again to everyone for your awesome questions and comments and we’ll continue to keep you informed on all of the hotline happenings at the DTCC!