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Christianna SilvaJanuary 2019
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The story of how Phoenix became an unlikely hotbed of Galápagos tortoise breeding, thanks to one dedicated matchmaker.

Tortoises aren’t very romantic.

So when Jerry Fife brought home a 17-year-old male Galápagos tortoise he purchased from a fellow breeder in Las Vegas to mate with his two female tortoises, he wasn’t sure how it would go over.

Then, he started hearing their rearing groans.

Fife could tell the male tortoise had a preference, “because, well, he was breeding with that one a whole bunch,” he says, pointing to one of his female tortoises going to town on a piece of prickly pear cactus. “And the other, not so much.”

photo by Madison KirkmanThis is how Fife has bred more than 200 Galápagos tortoises on his property, a sprawling acre of land in Laveen, just southwest of Phoenix – basically, by letting them eat and socialize. It sounds simple, but it often isn’t. Notoriously tricky to breed, the Galápagos has found an unlikely but prolific spawning ground in the Valley of the Sun, some 2,500 miles from its natural habitat. But the tortoise’s amenability to backyards in Arizona is itself part of a larger international controversy over the trafficking of exotic animals – one that splits lovers of these slow-moving, long-living giants into equally passionate camps.

To be sure, the reptiles – which weigh around 600 pounds as adults and grow to the size of a small coffee table – have made Fife’s desert property their own, guarding the gate into the backyard like lion statues. They graze on his huge plot of grass, and saunter over to a place just for them – it looks like a dog run, but has bushes, trees and plants shading the area. And that’s just for the five full-grown Galápagos tortoises currently in his care – the other dozens of reptiles include baby and adolescent tortoises, snakes, lizards and plenty more, finding their home in man-made structures throughout his yard.

This isn’t Fife’s first foray into the reptilian world. When he was a kid, his parents bought him a green iguana he named Guanie, and the love grew from there.

“Growing up in Phoenix at the time, there’d be horned lizards and snakes all over [our yard],” Fife says, adding that he and his brother, who would end up working for the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, loved to catch whatever they could just to take a closer look. “I grew up liking reptiles.”

photo by Madison KirkmanIn 1994, Fife bought his first Galápagos tortoise and raised her in his yard. He soon found out that Galápagos tortoises, animals native to the famously secluded Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, love the Valley.

Some people think it’s the weather that helps the giants thrive in our urban desert. Others think it might be the protein from mesquite beans that land at their feet, or the abundance of prickly pear cactus they so adore nibbling. The tortoises need lots of fiber and protein to survive, and the temperature is just about ideal for them – lack of Galápagos-like humidity notwithstanding.

Whatever the reason, Phoenix is a great place to breed tortoises. And it isn’t just an eccentric hobby: It could actually help save an endangered species.

According to National Geographic magazine, there are 10 species of giant tortoises left in the Galápagos, down from 15 when Charles Darwin first laid Western eyes on the islands in 1835. Pirates, whalers and merchants hunted them for food during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and killed more than 100,000 tortoises. Today, the animals continue to be trafficked and slaughtered for food. Private breeding, Fife argues, is keeping them alive.

“Not only am I ensuring the Galápagos tortoises are out there for future generations to see,” Fife says, “but we’re also learning about the best way to care for them, to maintain them, to raise them to adulthood.”

One of the best ways to care for them? Letting the tortoises do exactly what they want – which, as it turns out, is breeding, sleeping, eating and then breeding some more. Think of your most beloved stoner friend: chill, hungry and always down for a good time, as long as it doesn’t take too much energy.

The tortoises like to be around the action. They like people and will follow visitors anywhere in Fife’s backyard – no matter how long it takes them to get there. If they feel vulnerable or threatened, they’ll suck their heads into their shells and make a hissing sound as the air exits their bodies. The noise isn’t meant to be scary, although it is a little off-putting. Once they’re comfortable, they like to stand with their legs firm on the ground and reach their necks up to the sky, tilting their heads back in anticipation of a good neck scratch.

photo by Madison Kirkman; Jerry Fife (lounging with one of his wards) brought his first Galápagos tortoise to the Valley in 1994 and has since bred 2,000 of the once-endangered giants“This actually serves a purpose, too,” Fife says as he scratches a female tortoise’s neck. “Because in the wild, sometimes they’ll have ticks or things and the finch will sit on their legs and pick off the ticks. So, they’ll stand up on all fours like this [pictured, left] and stretch out their neck and a bird will start picking.”

Fife gives them this kind of attention every day. He wakes around 7 a.m., checks if they’re awake (reptiles tend to sleep more when the temperature is extreme: very hot or very cold), feeds them and scratches their necks. There’s no feeding routine, since tortoises are grazers, like cows. But they love carrots – Fife buys them by the 50-pound bag – and other vegetables.

Galápagos tortoises are hard not to love once you meet them, and some breeders argue that making Galápagos tortoises easier to access outside their natural habitat might make more people feel invested in conserving them. Actually owning one can be a life-altering event, given the animals’ remarkable longevity – some have been known to live 150 years, and 90 to 110 years is not uncommon.

But there are a lot of roadblocks private breeders face, since Galápagos tortoises are protected in Ecuador and listed as endangered by several organizations. (The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them as “threatened.”) It’s against Ecuadorian law to collect a Galápagos tortoise from the Galápagos Islands, giving rise to a flourishing breeder-to-breeder economy. Even then, it’s incredibly difficult to sell the animals across international lines, or even between U.S. states.

“I have to do an annual report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to indicate who I sold them to and everything else,” Fife says, adding that getting the necessary permits to sell them across state lines is time-consuming and expensive, taking several months and running hundreds of dollars.

photo by Madison KirkmanYou don’t need permits to sell animals within a given state, so Fife normally looks for buyers who are already in Arizona. He’s sold the animals to zoos, zoological institutes and private breeders for about $5,000 each.

Intra-state permits are required so that the U.S. government can regulate trade on animals that are listed on the Endangered Species Act, passed by Congress in 1973. That act doesn’t necessarily help these non-native animals, Fife argues, since the U.S. can’t enforce laws in the Galápagos Islands or in Ecuador. It’s effectively just making it more difficult to trade the animals.

Ecuador is doing its part – in 1936, the nation listed the giant tortoises as a protected species, and in 1959 it converted all uninhabited territory in the Galápagos islands into national park land. Officials also created the Charles Darwin Foundation, which works to help conserve the animals, and in 1970 banned capturing or removing tortoises or their eggs from the wild. But enforcement is another issue entirely. Last October alone, 123 tortoises were stolen from the Galápagos Islands.

The issue of protecting endangered species is complex and contentious within the conservation community: One camp seems to define a species’ survival by its total numbers in the world, including captive animals, while the other defines it by the animals’ ability to thrive in their native habitat. Tom Crutchfield, a well-known reptile breeder and activist who spent two years in prison for violating the Lacey Act by trafficking exotic animals in 1999, is a member of the first camp. He thinks that by restricting trade on Galápagos tortoises, it makes it more difficult to own the animal privately, and, as an extension, more likely that they’ll stay endangered. He doesn’t think any non-native animals like the Galápagos tortoise should even be on the endangered species list in the U.S.

photo by Madison Kirkman“The Endangered Species Act has non-native animals. I think the Endangered Species Act is a good act, but the real [issue should be]protecting the habitat where it actually lives, so [non-native animals] shouldn’t even be on the list,” Crutchfield says. “All non-native animals should be removed because we can’t give them the protection that they need. We cannot protect that habitat on any foreign species, so all [the act does] then is restrict trade.”

Some animals, Crutchfield argues, were saved from extinction by their popularity in the pet trade. He points to the Burmese star tortoise, a breed that faced extinction back in 2004 after it became a big attraction on the Chinese black market for exotic pets. The 14-inch tortoise was saved by an aggressive captive-breeding effort, according to a report in the journal Herpetological Review. Burmese star tortoises are ecologically extinct in the wild. But in captivity, they’re thriving. Similar programs have also been used in the United States to save condors and wolves.

But Burmese star tortoises wouldn’t have had to be brought back from near-extinction in the first place if it wasn’t for private breeders and the pet trade, maintains Cris Hagen, a hobbyist breeder, conservation biologist and the director of animal management at the Turtle Survival Alliance.

“Some of the source animals came from the pet trade, but the pet trade is what caused their extinction,” Hagen says. “They were mostly collected by the pet trade. That was one of the rare cases when the pet trade took a heavy, heavy toll on the species.”

The pet trade is one of the reasons non-native tortoises like the Galápagos tortoise are protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act in the first place.

“The U.S. Endangered Species Act has a list of non-native animals,” Hagen says, explaining that you can’t commercially trade these animals across state lines without a permit, lest you break the Lacey Act and face jail time. “It makes it difficult for the trade, and it also makes it difficult for legitimate research from academics to even send a blood sample or tissue sample across international boundaries.”

historic photo courtesy Library of Congress; the remnants of slaughtered tortoises on the Galápagos Islands, circa 1903If the animals were removed from the list, anyone could breed them and make money off of them. Hagen sees this as a problem because unscrupulous breeders would inevitably put profit before their duty to the animals. It’s possible that such breeders could create genetic defects as a result of inbreeding, hurting the breed as a whole and potentially pushing the endangered species even closer to extinction. The scientific community’s knowledge of Galápagos tortoises continues to evolve and change so much that, to be a responsible breeder, one needs to constantly stay abreast of research.

For instance, each of the 10 species of Galápagos tortoises is from a different island in the archipelago – a distinction scientists couldn’t demonstrate in the lab until about 10 years ago, says Ryan Zach, a reptile expert at the Phoenix Zoo.

“When the [genealogical] studies came out, which has been very recently, they tried to do genetic analysis of all the zoos, so we could try to pair them up,” Zach says. “There have been plenty of hybrids bred, and that’s probably what’s been happening all the way until now. But moving forward, if we know the difference, we can try to utilize that and try to [breed] better.”

Breeding within the correct genealogical lines is one of the ways zoos mimic natural conditions for these captive tortoises – and they do so for good reason. Think about Lonesome George, the famous tortoise and sole survivor of the Pinta Island tortoises of the Galápagos, who died in 2012. In a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, researchers surmised what kept him alive for more than a century, and some of the answers might help humans, too – George had a robust immune system, efficient DNA repair and complete resistance to cancer.

Researchers have effectively established multiple reasons to conserve the animal besides its virtue as a domesticated pet, including the fact that the information in its genes might help humans. So, enters the question: What’s the best way to protect the animal?

“You don’t want to alienate the private collectors, but a lot of people have to come to grips with reality,” Hagen says. “Keeping tortoises in your yard isn’t conservation. You’re preserving the species in captivity, that’s what it comes down to, which is a form of preserving options in the future. But long-term? That isn’t a conservation effort.”

Raising his next generation of lovable, centenarian behemoths, Valley breeder Fife isn’t so sure. His modest initial investment of three turtles has yielded a thriving clan of the animals. And there are so many neck scratches left to go.

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