By Lois M. Barron
Seeing a turtle isn’t rare in California, especially in ponds and lakes in city parks. Unfortunately, many are abandoned pets and might be species from anywhere in the world. Only one type, appropriately named the desert tortoise, is native to Southern California. Its home turf is the Mojave Desert.
To be clear, all tortoises are turtles — the way that all greyhounds are dogs, but not all dogs are greyhounds. Tortoises stay on land, while other turtles are equipped for being in the water, to varying degrees. Desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) have an average lifespan of 30 to 50 years but may live to be more than 80. They range from 8 to 15 pounds and 9 to 15 inches.
You can’t legally buy a desert tortoise. You have to adopt one through the guardians of the turtle galaxy in the state: the California Turtle & Tortoise Club.
“While they are listed on the Endangered Species List [as threatened], the captive desert tortoise population is far from in the same boat,” says Abigail DeSesa Ordway, adoption chair for the club’s Santa Clarita Valley Chapter. “It is illegal to breed them in captivity, yet people keep doing it, and now there aren’t enough good long-term homes for them. We always have desert tortoises needing new homes.”
She describes them as “ideal in tract housing neighborhoods because they don’t bark and disturb your neighbors. Desert tortoises brumate each winter [similar to hibernation], so it is like having a seasonal pet.
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“They do need overnight protection from predators like raccoons,” she cautions, “so it is very common that captive desert tortoises will have a lockable house.”
Their diet is simple, DeSesa Ordway says, and the healthiest way to keep one is to let it graze in your yard on assorted grasses, weeds, leaves and flowers. “It also provides them with the needed exercise and mental enrichment by foraging for its own food. It’s truly a very low-maintenance companion-style pet.”
Tortoise parents seem to agree.
“I just enjoy my tortoise so much,” says Josie Blue, who lives in San Diego County. “I wish I could sit with him all day!” Her pet loves to climb over rocks, chase bugs, and is curious about anything new in his exhibit.
“I constructed a winter burrow,” she says, “but I also created other places for him to hide during the warm months.”
Jenny Reynolds, who worked at the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands, remembers a desert tortoise in the live animal gallery named Tonka.
“Tonka was an astoundingly personable tortoise. He’d come when he was called, enjoyed walks in the courtyard, and was also particularly fond of yellow flowers,” she recalls.
What you should know
If you see a tortoise in the wild, move it only if it is about to be harmed. Picking up a desert tortoise can scare it into emptying its bladder. This is worse than messy because keeping water in its bladder helps tortoises survive days without drinking.