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Mojave desert tortoises finding new homes as part of state adoption program

Family says that their desert tortoise makes a perfect pet.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mojave desert tortoises, like this one photographed in April, are finding new homes across Utah.

Even though 11-year-old Shelldon isn’t toilet-trained, is really messy, sleeps five months out of the year and has a foot fetish, his adoptive family in Kaysville still adores him.

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

Their two children are equally captivated by their reptilian pet, who lives outdoors in a fenced backyard enclosure during warm weather, soaks up ultraviolet rays in his box indoors in inclement weather and roams the house on cold fall days.

And from October through March, Shelldon hibernates in his very own box in the basement, similar to an underground burrow where he would hibernate in his native habitat in Washington County.

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

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

“We come into possession of desert tortoises for a couple of reasons,” said Utah Division of Wildlife Resources spokesperson Faith Heaton Jolley. “People will see tortoises and think they are lost or in danger. Others think it would be fun to have one and take a tortoise home. In other instances, tortoises will be found out of their native range, and people will pick them up and turn them over to us.”

Jolly said once tortoises are removed from their native habitat, they typically can’t be repatriated, especially if they have been kept in a home with other animals.

“If you put them back in the wild, you run the risk of introducing diseases to the wild tortoise population like Upper Respiratory Tract Disease, which is similar to pneumonia and is very contagious,” she said. “So we don’t want someone releasing their pet tortoise back into the wild because it could potentially harm the rest of the population.”

Currently, there are 30 desert tortoises up for adoption. All Utahns living within state boundaries are eligible to adopt except those living Kane, Iron and Washington counties — areas where tortoises are known to reside.

Those interested are encouraged to go through the adoption process and ensure that they meet the requirements. Applicants must pay a $10 handling fee. If their application is approved, they must pay another $75 for a certificate of registration.

Demand for desert tortoises is high. Ann McLuckie, a biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said one reason for that is the tortoises are truly 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 is going to happen or when [water] will be available,” McLuckie said.

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

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

“Females produce only a few eggs each year,” she said. “In some years, the eggs do great because there’s lots of rain and food to eat. Other years not so much.

“And males will fight each other over females and for the best burrows or shelters,” McLuckie added. “They get a long bony projection called a ‘gular’ under their chin, which they will use to ram other males and flip them over. They can fight for a long time. But they do it in a tortoise-like way — really slow.”

Crystal Ross doesn’t know a lot about biology, but she says the tortoises are relatively low-maintenance and make good pets.

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

One of his favorite foods is strawberries. The tortoise likes them so much that he often mistakes the red nail polish on Ross’ toes for the fruit and will lumber over to take a bite. Most times, though, Shelldon has to make do with a diet of dandelions and weeds.

As for toilet training, forget about it. Ross said Shelldon can be gross and make a giant mess. When he is roaming indoors, family members try to keep him on hard surfaces that are easy to clean.

Age is another downside. Desert tortoises can live 50 to 70 years. But Ross said everyone in the family understands they are in the tortoise-caring business for the long haul.

“We’re already telling the children they have to take over looking after Shelldon after we are dead and gone, and they’re happy and excited to do it,” she said.