“He’s so cute. It’s like having your own dinosaur tromping around your yard.”
Tara Duncan is talking about her adopted tortoise, one of 350 to 400 desert tortoises adopted every year from the Arizona Game & Fish Department (AZGFD). To call these unique pets low maintenance is an understatement. Desert tortoises disappear for months, descending into their backyard burrows to escape cold winter temperatures. But when these reptiles emerge from their dens in the spring, they make up for lost time with their eagerly waiting owners.
These aren’t the gargantuan, 900-pound tortoises of Galapagos Islands fame. Desert tortoises max out at 20 pounds and can live up to 100 years, longer than their human owners, who must often make provisions in their will for the continuing care of these creatures. Although slow of foot as in Aesop’s fable, tortoises have moon buggy-like, four-wheel drive attributes that allow them to traverse rugged terrain.
Duncan named her adoptee Tank because Navajo Code Talkers used the Navajo word for tortoise as code for military tanks during World War II. “I figured they probably knew best, and I was right. Tank loves to chug around the yard and nothing stops him,” Duncan says.
“We were shocked that Tank has a personality, as he’s a reptile,” she adds. “But he follows us around the yard like a dog and crawls into my lap for a treat of green beans or cactus pads.”
“Some are really charismatic,” Mike Demlong, AZGFD wildlife education program manager, concurs. “Tortoises come to you because they associate you with food or want their neck scratched. Others just kind of tolerate you, sort of like a cat.”
Demlong knows a little about tortoises, as he temporarily houses more than 60 of them for the AZGFD. These tortoises don’t come from misguided souls “rescuing” them in the desert, but have been bred in captivity in people’s backyards. They can’t be released into the wild because interbreeding would dilute the local Sonoran desert tortoise gene pool and transmit pathogens.
This spring, Demlong hopes to find good homes for his charges through AZGFD’s Tortoise Adoption Program, which has been run largely through private donations since 1980. Although adoptions take place throughout the summer, the kick-off event is on Saturday, April 9. It’s not “grab and go” with the tortoises, however, unless potential owners have been pre-approved to make sure they’re a good fit. The adoption application at azgfd.com is a simple, online questionnaire about your family and backyard habitat. “Cats are fine paired with tortoises. Some dogs are compatible, but others not so much,” Demlong notes.
Families can only adopt one tortoise. “They’re solitary animals and only get together to breed; they don’t need another tortoise to be happy,” Demlong says. “That’s hard for humans to accept since we’re social creatures.”
Adoption numbers might decline in the future, as a recent wildlife commission order made it illegal to breed desert tortoises in captivity without AZGFD authorization. This spring could be the best chance to make a new, endlessly fascinating friend.
“Tank knows what he likes,” Duncan declares. “For instance, he much prefers organic baby bok choy to mustard greens. He reminds me of an old man sniffing a cigar as he runs his nose back and forth over his choices.”
Another tortoise owner, William Martin, counsels patience. “They are not like other pets that show right away if they’re happy or unhappy with you. They express themselves very little, and very slowly. It’s through their regular behavior that I am learning what they like,” he says.
Tortoises aren’t for everyone, though; Demlong doesn’t even have one at home. “My wife has an aversion to them due to a negative childhood experience brought on by her older siblings,” he confesses sheepishly.
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