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CA Press:Endangered desert tortoise crawls into owners heart

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Posted by desiree on August 29, 2002 at 11:04:49:

Endangered desert tortoise crawls into owners’ hearts
Turtle and Tortoise Club members adopt ‘lost’ animals

By Laura Waskin
The Desert Sun
August 29th, 2002

Although the population of retirees in the Coachella Valley is on the upswing, other long-standing members of the community’s senior citizenry have dropped to alarming numbers.

A state endangered species, the desert tortoise is struggling to maintain a foothold in a rapidly changing environment that threatens its existence.

Growth and development, predatory ravens, the destruction of its burrows by off-road vehicles, and upper respiratory tract disease have all contributed significantly to the dwindling population of these friendly reptiles.

But each year between August and October, the tortoises add to their numbers as hatchlings take their first wobbly steps into the desert surroundings.

And at a time when most of us cut back on activities, retreat to air conditioned quarters, or disappear altogether for a more temperate climate, these hardy, mosaic-shelled residents are energetically climbing, burrowing and exploring during the summer.

Many desert tortoises have developed special relationships with local residents who share their territory.

Ann Clandening, a 14-year member of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club, said the friendly reptiles also make excellent pets.

More than 100 members belong to the club’s desert chapter, which helps find homes for tortoises "lost" in urban areas. Its goal is to protect and propagate the species, which can live 80 years or more.

"Our kids have grown up and moved out of the house, but our family pets are still here 30 some years later," said Clandening, who lives in Rancho Mirage. "Tortoises have a lot of character and are like dogs in many ways, but much lower maintenance. Our three tortoises enjoy sitting with us, and like to be scratched on the head or under the chin.

"We also have dogs, and when I brush them, the tortoises have to be part of it too, or they get jealous."

Clandening’s tortoises use the doggie door and sit in front of the refrigerator waiting for food. They’re also a favorite pastime for neighborhood children.

"The kids always like to come by our yard to look at or feed the tortoises," Clandening said. "So they’re always disappointed when they go into their annual hibernation."

Comforts of home: A fenced yard with grazing and digging areas, and a dog house or reinforced underground burrow shelter are essential for a tortoise’s well-being.

A diet consisting of dark leafy greens, vegetables and flowers like hibiscus is also important.

But unlike other pets, tortoises only need care for seven months out of the year. During their annual hibernation from November to April, the tortoises require only a cozy box lined with newspapers or dry leaves in the garage, dog house, or closet in an unheated spare room.

The Babicky family of La Quinta has belonged to the Turtle and Tortoise Club for the past year. They have a 2-year-old tortoise named Petey, and are currently waiting to adopt two more.

"It’s fun having a tortoise because they really interact and get to know you," David Babicky said. "Petey follows us around and comes to sit at my feet like a dog. She eats out of my hand. You really get attached to each other."

David Babicky Jr., 10, said his favorite aspect of having a tortoise is that he can pet and kiss it -- and Petey returns his affections.

"Having Petey gives me something to do when I get home from school and on weekends," Babicky said. "I like to go out and visit with her."

The club’s adoption chairman, Yvonne Sessums, stresses owners must never release pet tortoises back into the wild because they don’t adjust well and may carry upper respiratory tract disease.

Leave wild one alone: Tortoises wandering through the desert should also be left alone. It’s illegal to bother the animals, except under certain circumstances including helping them avoid danger.

But if a tortoise is spotted roaming through town, Sessums advises people to give it a lift to the Living Desert.

"The tortoises can be injured or hit by a car in town," said Sessums, whose two tortoises have been "family members" for 35 years.

"Some can also dig underneath a gate that’s not secure and escape from a yard. So the majority of the tortoises we have for adoption come from the Living Desert that people have found and turned in."

According to Kim Auckland, animal care supervisor at the Living Desert and president of the local Turtle and Tortoise Club, an average of 150 tortoises are brought in each year.

Many are still waiting for good homes. However, since the statewide adoption program began in 1974, more than 300,000 of the permits required for tortoise ownership have been issued.

"What I find amazing about tortoises is that they were around at the same time as dinosaurs -- and outlived them -- with basically the same physical make-up today," said Auckland, who owns six tortoises. "It’s an animal that has been unchanged for millions of years."

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Information: To find out more about the California Turtle and Tortoise Club, or to adopt a tortoise call 346-5694 or 564-3877.

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