Mojave desert tortoises find new homes as part of the state adoption program

Although 11-year-old Shelldon doesn’t use the toilet, is very messy, sleeps five months a year and has a foot fetish, his adoptive family in Kaysville still adores him.

“Everyone in the family loves him,” Crystal Ross said of the desert tortoise she and husband Chris adopted six years ago.

Her two children are equally fascinated by her reptile pet, who lives outside in a fenced backyard enclosure when the weather is warm, inside in his box when the weather is inclement, soaking up ultraviolet rays, and roaming the house on cold autumn days.

And from October through March, Shelldon overwinters in its own box in the basement, similar to an underground burrow it would overwinter in in its native Washington County habitat.

Shelldon is one of many desert tortoises finding new homes across the state. The new digs are being conducted courtesy of the Utah Desert Tortoise Adoption Program, which began in the 1990s after desert tortoises were classified as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.

While desert tortoises are officially protected by federal and state laws, they are often collected illegally and uprooted from their natural habitat, which in Utah is largely restricted to Washington County’s Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, home to an estimated 2,000 adult tortoises.

“We come into possession of desert tortoises for a number of reasons,” said Faith Heaton Jolley, spokeswoman for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “People will see turtles and think they are lost or in danger. Others think it would be fun to have and take home a turtle. Other times turtles are found outside of their natural range and people will pick them up and give them to us.”

Jolly said once turtles are removed from their natural habitat, they usually can’t be brought back, especially if they’ve been housed with other animals.

“If you release them back into the wild, you run the risk of introducing diseases into the wild turtle population, like upper respiratory disease, which resembles pneumonia and is very contagious,” she said. “So we don’t want anyone releasing their house turtle back into the wild because that could potentially harm the rest of the population.”

There are currently 30 desert tortoises available for adoption. All Utahns living within state lines are eligible for adoption, except for those living in Kane, Iron, and Washington counties — areas known to be home to turtles.

Prospects are encouraged to go through the adoption process and ensure they meet the requirements. Applicants must pay a $10 processing fee. If their application is approved, they must pay an additional $75 for a certificate of registration.

The demand for desert tortoises is high. Ann McLuckie, a biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said one reason is because the turtles are really fascinating.

“They have lived in the Mojave Desert for millions of years and have evolved and made some amazing adaptations that allow them to survive in an extreme environment like the desert where you don’t know when the next rain will come or when [water] will be available,” McLuckie said.

For example, she explained, desert tortoises can store water in their bladder and then recycle it to the rest of their bodies during really dry periods. They also have a very hard shell and thick skin to minimize water loss. To withstand the heat or the cold, they dig deep underground burrows and hibernate five months of the year.

McLuckie said desert tortoises take 15 to 20 years to mature before showing their sexual characteristics.

“Females produce few eggs each year,” she said. “Some years the eggs do well because there is a lot of rain and a lot of food. Other years not so much.

“And the males will compete for the females and for the best dens or shelters,” McLuckie added. “They get a long bony protrusion called a ‘gular’ under their chin which they use to ram other males and turn them over. You can fight for a long time. But they do it in a turtle-like way — very slowly.”

Crystal Ross doesn’t know much about biology, but she says the turtles are relatively easy to care for and make good pets.

“People assume because desert tortoises are reptiles, they don’t have a lot of personality,” she said. “But Shelldon certainly does. He has his favorite things, his likes and dislikes.

One of his favorite foods are strawberries. The turtle likes them so much that they often mistake the red nail polish on Ross’s toes for the fruit and stumble over to him for a bite. Most of the time, however, Shelldon has to be content with a diet of dandelions and weeds.

Forget toilet training. Ross said Shelldon could be gross and make a huge mess. When he’s roaming indoors, family members try to keep him on hard surfaces that are easy to clean.

Age is another disadvantage. Desert tortoises can live 50 to 70 years. But Ross said everyone in the family understands they’re in the turtle care business for the long haul.

“We’re already telling the kids that now that we’re dead and gone they have Shelldon to look after and they’re happy and excited about it,” she said. Mojave desert tortoises find new homes as part of the state adoption program

Justin Scacco

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