January 29, 2013

Tortoise center wants out of the shelter business

Mojave Max, Nevada's most famous desert tortoise, roams the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in September 2009. (Las Vegas Review-Journal File)

By Henry Brean

After years of taking in people's unwanted pets, the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center at the valley's southwestern edge is desperately trying to get out of the shelter business.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials announced Tuesday that the federal facility has discontinued its pickup service for pets and strays, which literally gobbles up resources meant for research and recovery work.

Instead, the center is teaming up with the Animal Foundation to develop a new tortoise drop-off and adoption program through the foundation-operated Lied Animal Shelter.

The Fish and Wildlife Service simply doesn't have the funds to take in and care for more than 1,000 unwanted tortoises a year, said Ted Koch, who heads up the agency in Nevada.

"We aren't picking them up anymore, and we do not want to take them in anymore," Koch said. "We cannot take them in anymore."

Lied Animal Shelter was already accepting desert tortoises as part of its mission to take in "anything anyone brings to us that's an animal," said Betsy VanDeusen, development manager for the Animal Foundation.

Clark County's largest animal shelter would serve as the main drop-off point for unwanted tortoises that would otherwise end up at the conservation center.

That's the goal anyway.

Koch acknowledged the change could result in more pet tortoises being dumped into the open desert by their owners, even though doing so is "illegal, unwise ecologically and cruel."

"Unless you do it at the right place at the right time, it's likely to end in an unpleasant death for the tortoise," he said.

The conservation center was established 20 years ago as a place for developers to put the federally protected animals after removing them from job sites.

The San Diego Zoo now manages the center under a 2009 partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.

Koch said shelter work takes time and money away from the facility's core missions of research, education and the controlled release of tortoises into the wild, but there is another reason the community needs to transition away from using the center as a care home for unwanted animals. He said the conservation center only has funding for the next two years, and its future is unclear.

VanDeusen said the Animal Foundation is now developing an adoption program in consultation with the center. The details are still being worked out, but the idea is to let people adopt male tortoises only in an effort to curb backyard breeding.

The program should be up and running later this year, she said. Until then, Lied will take in as many tortoises as it can and turn the rest over to the conservation center.

No healthy tortoises will be euthanized by Lied or anyone else, at least not yet.

Koch said he can't rule that out down the road if funding continues to shrink and no solution can be found to "stem the flow of unwanted pet tortoises."

Some estimate there could be as many as 150,000 captive desert tortoises in the Las Vegas Valley alone. Koch couldn't vouch for that number, but he said there isn't much to stop their numbers from skyrocketing in a backyard setting with ample food, water and protection of predators.

Tortoises lay up to a dozen eggs at a time precisely because so many of the hatchlings don't survive in the wild. In captivity, the number of eggs is the same but the survival rate is far higher.

Koch knows it sounds strange for the agency charged with saving the desert tortoise to actively campaign against more breeding of the animal. But he said one of the fundamental purposes of the Endangered Species Act is to conserve the ecosystems on which species depend, "and raising individuals in captivity does not meet that purpose."

No other federally protected species is so widely kept as a pet, Koch said. "It's unique in the country."

In addition to the collaboration with Lied, the Fish and Wildlife Service is exploring a possible partnership with the Humane Society or other animal group to offer tortoises for adoption nationwide.

Ultimately, Koch said, the agency is open to any ideas that might help keep the state reptile of Nevada from stacking up at shelters while officials try to figure out how to preserve it in the wild.