Desert tortoises make easy non-traditional pets

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by Cristina Jones, Arizona Game & Fish Department / Special to azfamily.com

GMAZ interview by Tess Rafols

Posted on August 2, 2013 at 10:40 AM

Updated Friday, Aug 2 at 11:00 AM

PHOENIX -- Do you have a yard big enough for a dog, but no time to take one for daily walks? Is someone in your family allergic to pets with fur or feathers? If so, consider adopting a desert tortoise through the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Desert tortoises offer a unique alternative to more traditional family pets, and can teach many of the same life lessons to children, including responsibility, compassion and commitment.

“We cannot stress enough how detrimental removing tortoises from the wild and backyard breeding are to the species,” said Cristina Jones, Arizona Game and Fish’s turtle program coordinator. “This iconic desert species has become overpopulated in captivity and there aren’t enough homes for them.”

Desert tortoises are native to the southwestern desert and can live up to 100 years. They grow to be about 15 pounds and hibernate in the winter months. Desert tortoises eat plant material, including grasses and wildflowers. Once captive, desert tortoises cannot be released back into the wild as captive animals can pass an upper respiratory disease to wild tortoise populations. It is also illegal and harmful to desert tortoise populations to collect tortoises from the wild.

Those interested in adopting a tortoise will need to have an enclosed area in their yard free from potential hazards, such as a dog or pool. The enclosed area must include a burrow for the tortoise to escape Arizona’s extreme temperatures. Tortoises are only available for adoption to residents living within the species’ native range, which includes the Phoenix, Bullhead City, Kingman, Lake Havasu, Tucson, and Yuma areas. Desert tortoises cannot survive the severe winters that occur in the northeastern and southeastern regions of the state.

Those interested in sharing their yard with a tortoise should visit www.azgfd.gov/tortoise for more information on feeding, caring for, and creating a habitat for a tortoise. A desert tortoise adoption packet, which includes the adoption application, can also be downloaded at this site. There is a limit of one tortoise per household.

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