Captive desert tortoise

PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) – Dogs and cats are wonderful pets, but if you’re looking for a slightly more exotic animal – something unique to Arizona -- a captive desert tortoise might make a great addition to your family. The Arizona Game and Fish Department is looking after more than 70 desert tortoises that need forever homes. “They vary in size, age and personality but all need a home,” according to AZGFD. The agency says it has seen an influx of desert tortoises this year, “mostly due to unintentional illegal breeding and surrenders.” When adoption season started in April, AZGFD had more than 100 tortoises in its care.

More than 100 desert tortoises need forever homes

While many animals that find themselves at AZGFD can be released back into the wild, that’s not the case with tortoises. First, they might not be able to find food on their own. Second, captive tortoises can carry diseases that can be dangerous to their wild brethren. That’s why AZGFD works so hard to find homes for them.

Tegan Wolf, who has managed the AZGFD desert tortoise adoption program for nearly 10 years, says tortoises, for the most part, are pretty low-maintenance pets. “They’re so chill,” she said. But there are some things you need to know.

In addition to prohibiting breeding, AZGFD says potential tortoise adopters can have “one desert tortoise per person per household.” Keep in mind, though, that tortoises are solitary and territorial animals. They don’t play nicely together and cannot share a burrow. Also, state law requires adoptive families to be Arizona residents and says the animals cannot be taken out of state.

Adopting a captive desert tortoise is not like bringing home a dog, cat, or other traditional pet. First, a healthy tortoise lives longer than any dog or cat. Much longer. They can live to be between 80 and 100, which means families need to have a long-term plan for the animal’s care.

Young desert tortoise

A must-have to become a tortoise parent is a proper burrow in an enclosed yard. The online adoption application requires you to submit pictures of the burrow, so it must be “move-in ready.” While they start out tiny – they fit in the palm of your hand when they are young – captive desert tortoises can grow to be up to 12-15 pounds. Plan and build accordingly.

Sonoran desert tortoises have specific diets. Native plants and grasses are best. Make sure they have not been treated with fertilizers, pesticides, or insecticides. You don’t want to poison the tortoise’s food. Bermuda grass and timothy hay are great supplements, as are commercial plants such as romaine, red leaf and green leaf lettuces, dandelion, mustard, turnip and collard greens, bell peppers, parsley, and cilantro. Steer clear of other pet foods. They contain vitamins and minerals that are not good for tortoises. Avoid canned and frozen veggies, as well. Fresh fruit makes for a great treat, but not on a daily basis.

Tortoises do not drink much water because they get most of their hydration from their food, but AZGFD says they love a good soak. That means they need a place large enough to sit in with water that’s an inch or two deep. Unlike cats and dogs that need fresh water daily, tortoises, because of their biology, only need water a couple of times a week.

Desert tortoise

The deadline to apply to adopt a desert tortoise this year is coming up on Sept. 30, but AZGFD says it is considering extending it to the end of October. Unlike most other pets, which can be adopted any time of the year, the timeframe for adopting a tortoise is generally between April and September because they brumate (the cold-blooded animal’s equivalent of hibernating) during the fall and winter months.

“Desert tortoises are nontraditional pets, but are fascinating animals and families can gain an appreciation of desert wildlife by caring for a tortoise and watching its natural behavior,” AZGFD says on its web page dedicated to desert tortoises.

For more information or to apply to adopt a desert tortoise, visit

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