August 5, 2008

Desert tortoises becoming victims of foreclosures

Lynda Lambert, public information officer, Arizona Game and Fish Department
Arizona Republic

Dogs and cats aren't the only four-legged victims of the growing foreclosure crisis.

Captive desert tortoises are being abandoned or illegally released back into the wild when their custodians can no longer care for them.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department is aware of an increasing number of captive desert tortoises being released illegally back into the wild, especially at local community parks., as their desperate custodians are forced to move from their home.

"We cannot stress enough how detrimental it is for both the captive and wild tortoises to let a captive tortoise go free in the wild," said Cristina Jones, Arizona Game and Fish Department's turtles project coordinator. "Captive desert tortoises can transmit diseases that harm wild populations, and captive tortoises aren't prepared to find food and water in an unfamiliar area and often die."

The department also advises the public not to handle desert tortoises in the wild.

With the summer monsoon in full force, Arizonans are likely to see an increased number of tortoises in the wild as they come out of their burrows in search of food and water. They are frequently seen near roadways, but concerned citizens need to follow a few basic rules when trying to protect these creatures.

The desert tortoise is recognized as a threatened species in parts of California, Nevada, Utah and northwestern Arizona. If a person sees a tortoise, he or she should not remove the animal from its habitat.

Do not try to help a tortoise by moving it to another area unless the animal is in imminent danger, such as crossing a busy road. In that case, pick the tortoise up and gently move it to the other side. Carry it so that it's level to the ground, and move it in the same direction it was headed. Most tortoises stay in the same small area during their entire lives, so they may not know where to find food and shelter if you move them.

If you want to share your yard with a desert tortoise, you can lawfully obtain one through state-sanctioned adoption facilities, including the Phoenix Herpetological Society in Phoenix and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. Several requirements are involved in the adoption process.

Desert tortoises are slow-moving creatures that can live as long as 50 to 100 years. The adults are about 10 to 14 inches long. An Arizona Game and Fish Commission rule prohibits taking these creatures from the wild. Federal law bans the transportation across state lines.

People who can no longer care for their desert tortoise should contact the Phoenix Herpetological Society at 602-550-7029 or the Arizona Game and Fish Department at 623-236-7767 for assistance.

For more information on desert tortoises: