Feeding Frenzy

A desert tortoise eyes the food bucket.

They see you before you even know they’re there, waiting, watching. Gingerly stepping from pen to pen, avoiding the prickly burrs and trying not to walk into a pointed yucca while carrying a gallon bucket of tortoise chow, you feel like you’re alone out here. Sure, you know a lack of visual confirmation means they’re in the burrows, but then you get comfortable, not expecting to see anyone or anything because of the temperature of the morning. “It must be too cold,” you think to yourself, back turned as you step into the next pen, eyes cast downward, watching your step. And just as you are embracing that alone time with the desert sunrise, you look up slowly, and fast approaching on those stubby, elephantine legs, five sets of eyes have you in their sights, and they want…the food bucket!

Every morning, one of the first tasks to be done at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas is to round up four or five people to feed the desert tortoises that live on site. There are 6 different pen areas, all of which get fed one or two times a week by the DTCC staff to supplement the native food sources planted in their enclosures. We feed the tortoises Mazuri diet, a moistened pelleted tortoise food that has the right balance of nutrition for desert tortoises maintained in captivity.

Feeding is one of my favorite tasks at the DTCC. With tortoise season in full swing, we are collecting thousands of samples that I am responsible for banking in the lab (see Larisa’s post, New Lab Coordinator for Tortoises), so I don’t always have time to get outside. For that reason I relish the times I am able to feed the tortoises and observe them eating, walking, and just being tortoises in a natural, safe environment. Walking from pen to pen looking for a tortoise to plop a handful of food in front of reminds me very much of an Easter egg hunt: you’re not sure when or where a desert tortoise will appear, but when you find it, it’s such an exhilarating moment! You’d think by now I’d be used to seeing these tortoises, but each time is as exciting as the first for me. Granted, they’re not “excited” as much about me as they are about the bucket of food I’m carrying, but it’s still an experience I would not otherwise have were I not a member of the DTCC staff.

After giving a tortoise some chow, I sometimes take a few seconds to stand back and watch as he/she digs in, glad to be able to help do something that will, I hope, make these animals strong and healthy enough to one day be released back into the wild.

Larisa Gokool is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read a previous tortoise post, Desert Tortoise: Not Apartment-friendly Pet.

Watch a video about the DTCC…

5 Responses to Feeding Frenzy

  1. This series on the desert tortoise is excellent. These creatures are fascinating. Keep up the good work!

  2. Wow Larisa.. the dangers you face when feeding the tortoises!! :-) Hopefully you wouldl be able to outrun them if they get too rambunctious…

    I enjoyed reading this post. It all started with the Pandas, now I read each and every one of them and I can honestly say I’ve learned something from all of them…. Thank you for taking time to educate us! :-)

  3. I just watched the video about the tortoises! Now I know what you were talking about the pens and the feeding bucket… :-)

    It was a very good video. I hope alot of people watch it..I don’t think there is are any tortoises in Ohio but if I lived in tortoise country I would definitely be on the lookout to help any that might be in the need for rescue.

    Moderator’s note: Thanks for reminding me about the video. I’ve added a link to it in the post.

  4. It must be a joy to see these healthy tortoises. Hope these happy feeding experiences help you to recover from the pain of seeing poorly cared for “pet” tortoises.

    Enjoyed reading about these animals. They might not have the “star” appeal of a panda or elephant, but they are fascinating in their own way. Glad you continue to write about them! Looking forward to your next blog. Loved the photos, too. Cute!

  5. Thanks, Larisa, for a post about a special treasure we don’t often hear much about. They sound like fun to watch and get to know.