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MO Press: once pets, are becoming rehab and rescue crisis


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Posted by W von Papinešu on April 23, 2003 at 20:29:53:

KANSAS CITY STAR (Missouri) 22 April 03 Turtles, once pets, are becoming rehab and rescue crisis (Denise Flaim)
"An elephant in a shell."
That's how Lori Green, director of Turtle Homes, a nonprofit rescue and conservation organization on New York's Long Island, describes Geochelone sulcata, also known as the African spurred tortoise. Maturing into the tortoise equivalent of an untrained, unhousebroken Great Dane, sulcatas are one of the biggest crises facing rehabbers and rescuers.
"There isn't a day that goes by that we don't have a request to rehome one," says Green, who also handles rescue and adoptions for the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society. "Very, very few people can manage a sulcata permanently. Yet they're sold in almost every pet shop and at all the reptile shows."
"By 5 pounds, they're scraping the baseboards on your house," Green says. "By 10 pounds, they can go through Sheetrock. And by 20 pounds, they can move furniture."
Also marketed as sultan, sun and African tortoises, or mislabeled as Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoises (a species that looks similar as a hatchling, but reaches only a foot long), sulcatas are cute babies. But the tortoises, which are prolific breeders in captivity, average 30 inches and 100 pounds when they grow up. And grow they do.
David Nieves, a herpetologist and treasurer for Kansas City Herpetological Society, describes them as "a cow in a shell." He should know. Nieves has had one for 14 years. When he acquired the tortoise, it was merely an inch across. Now it weighs 85 pounds and isn't full grown, yet.
"It's a wonderful tortoise, just not a good pet," Nieves said. "They're very prolific. They produce a large number of eggs, but unfortunately that's why they're showing up in pet stores. Some people see them as a cash cow."
In their native sub-Saharan Africa, sulcatas eat only during the three-month rainy season, when they graze on native grasses, and they escape the relentless heat by snoozing in gigantic tunnels they've excavated. Overfeeding a sulcata can quadruple its growth rate, and nutritional imbalances can contribute to "pyramiding," in which the shell grows lumpy, looking like a miniature mountain range.
The sulcata's strong burrowing instinct translates into ripped flooring, shredded carpets and potholed back yards. Green recalls the couple who spent $25,000 to drill and repair the foundation of their home when their two 25-pound sulcatas tunneled under it and wouldn't resurface.
"As hatchlings, they're incredibly cute," says Allen Salzberg, editor and publisher of HerpDigest, a free electronic newsletter on reptile and amphibian conservation. "But no one tells you how big they get -- that eventually it's like having a 19-inch-screen television walking around your house. I've seen one go eyeball-to-eyeball with a German shepherd -- and the German shepherd blinked first."
Want to go the "Born Free" route and just release your sulcata into the "wild"? Think again. Sulcatas cannot survive in cold climates and must spend the winters indoors. Because of their formidable size and strength, sulcatas need a room devoted to them; ideally, the temperature should be kept between 72 and 75 degrees, with access to a warmer zone of 85 degrees.
Even though they are not common in the Kansas City area yet, Nieves said a sulcata was found wandering in Lee's Summit last year. However, the baby tortoises are more available locally, so Nieves expects more of them to become a rescue problem in about three years. By that time, he said, the sulcatas will have become too big for their owners to manage.
Then there is the reality of sulcata scatology. "Remember the scene in the first `Jurassic Park,' when Laura Dern put her hand in a pile of Triceratops dung?" Salzberg says. "Sulcata dung is comparable."
Sulcatas can live outdoors all year in hot-weather states with minimal rainfall, such as Arizona. But even in those arid climes, they need shelter and a heat source at night. And the tortoises still are not companions in the general sense of the word.
"They are the African version of a gopher tortoise, and nobody has a gopher tortoise as a pet," Salzberg says. "They have it as a guest. It comes up every once in a while and says hello, but it's tunneling and winds up in your neighbor's yard."
Indeed, as sulcatas rapidly become throwaways, turtle rescuers are overwhelmed with the task of trying to find suitable homes. Shipping them South is one solution, but an ecologically dicey one, as no one can predict how sulcatas might affect indigenous animal populations. And unhappy owners who decide to stick it out are in for a long wait.
"This is a tortoise that will live 150 years," concludes Green, who offers a "Sulcata Reality Check" page at her site, www.turtlehomes.org. "So be prepared to will them to your grandchildren -- maybe even great-grandchildren."



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