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Adopt a Tortoise



What is the Desert Tortoise Adoption Program?

The Desert Tortoise Adoption Program allows families and individuals to adopt captive-bred desert tortoises. This program started in conjunction with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife when the desert tortoise was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Where do tortoises for adoption come from?

All tortoises adopted out are donated to The Living Desert by members of the public. The previous care givers were either:

  • no longer able to keep their tortoise
  • moving out of state
  • had unintentional mating/breeding resulting in hatchlings
  • found a tortoise wandering in the street or in their yard

Can I buy a desert tortoise?

No, it is illegal to buy or sell desert tortoises. If anyone tries to sell you a desert tortoise, check it out. It may not be a desert tortoise, but if it is, please report the matter to California Department of Fish & Wildlife, CALTIP, 1-800-952-5400. Let the seller know this is illegal and that they can be adopted at no cost.

Can anyone adopt a tortoise?

Yes, if they complete an “Application for Turtle/Tortoise Adoption” form satisfactorily, and are aware they have certain responsibilities towards the tortoise such as providing veterinary care, proper accommodation, and proper diet.

What does “proper accommodation” mean?

A completely fenced or walled yard is a “proper” desert tortoise accommodation. Ideally, the tortoise will not be able to see out through the fence/wall, or it will be more likely to burrow its way out. A specially constructed enclosure within a yard is also acceptable. Hatchlings must be kept indoors in a terrarium with a “Vita Lite,” or in a protected outdoor pen, as many predators eat them.

Who would not be allowed to adopt a tortoise?

  • A child without the written permission of a parent or guardian
  • Someone who specifically stated they would not provide veterinary care
  • Someone whose yard was obviously not adequately walled or fenced and who was also not prepared to make a secure enclosure for their tortoise
  • Someone living in an apartment who wanted to adopt a large tortoise (they need to be outdoors)
  • Applicants from out of state; since it is illegal to take desert tortoises out of California without written permission from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife

How many tortoises can someone adopt?

The number of tortoises a family or person can adopt depends on how much room they have. Two female tortoises will usually get along quite well, and may be housed in the same, adequately sized yard. Two male tortoises, unless they’ve grown up together, will constantly fight over territory and therefore must be housed in separate, adequately sized yards. We WILL NOT adopt tortoises as male/female pairs to people who intend to breed them. If you adopt more than one tortoise, you may need to provide separate habitats if they don’t get along as they mature. We will always take one tortoise back if there are problems with fighting.

When will I get my tortoise?

The Living Desert relies entirely on donated tortoises, and we cannot predict when a tortoise will become available. As a general rule, tortoises are not available during the winter months when they are hibernating. Hatchlings are usually brought in from August to October. Adult males are the most common. When your adoption application is received, we will contact you. While you are waiting, we offer ideas for getting your yard ready.

Is care and feeding information provided for people adopting tortoises?

Yes, a packet of information containing a set of care sheets and diet information, along with lists of safe plants is provided at the time of adoption. An application to join the California Turtle and Tortoise Club (CTTC) is also included in this packet of information. Members of the CTTC are invited to attend meetings and receive the “Tortuga Gazette,” a newsletter that provides a great deal of help and information on caring for desert tortoises.

Isn’t it illegal to possess a desert tortoise?

Under normal circumstances, it is illegal to possess a desert tortoise, however these captive tortoises are a special circumstance. If a desert tortoise has been in captivity for many years or was born in captivity, it is assumed that individual has been exposed to (and is a carrier of) Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD), one of the leading causes of decline in the wild populations of desert tortoises. In order to prevent further spread of the disease to wild desert tortoise populations, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife created the captive desert tortoise adoption program, which allows legal possession of a protected species. All desert tortoises, even hatchlings, must be registered with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife; The Living Desert will provide a registration form for this purpose at the time of adoption (there is no charge). It is not necessary to register turtles or other species of tortoise. If the permit “tag” gets rubbed off your tortoise, you may simply apply for a new one and let CDFW know it is a replacement.

Do we adopt out any other kinds of animals?

Yes, but only other kinds of turtles and tortoises donated to us for adoption. This includes water turtles, exotic tortoises, etc. The same rules apply as for desert tortoise adoptions.

What about wild desert tortoises?

The Living Desert never knowingly adopts out wild-caught desert tortoises. It is illegal to remove desert tortoises from the wild.
What should I do if I find a desert tortoise in the wild crossing a road?
If you encounter a desert tortoise crossing a road, please follow these instructions:

  1. Unless the tortoise is in imminent danger of being hit, do not interfere with, touch, handle, harass, or move the tortoise.
  2. If the tortoise you encounter is in imminent danger of being hit by a vehicle, do the following
    1. Gently pick up the tortoise on either side of the shell making sure to keep it low to the ground and level.
    2. Slowly move the tortoise across the road in the direction it was already moving.
    3. Place the tortoise in a shady spot 50-100 feet off the road and let it go on its way.
  3. For more information and tips, please see Joshua Tree National Park’s Desert Tortoise Webpage.

What if the tortoise I adopt turns out to be sick?

Most captive desert tortoises are carriers of Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD) which recurs from time to time, especially if the tortoise is stressed. The Living Desert tries not to adopt out sick tortoises without treating them first. Being adopted into a new family and placed in a new “territory” is considered stress. New desert tortoise care takers should watch for the following symptoms of URTD:

  • a runny nose, whistling sound when breathing, bubbles coming from nostrils/nares
  • runny/weeping eyes, puffy/swollen eyes
  • wheezing breath

URTD must be treated by a veterinarian. If you cannot afford veterinarian care for your tortoise, you may donate the tortoise back to The Living Desert for treatment and placement in a new home. You will not be able to re-adopt this tortoise, and it is unlikely you would be allowed to adopt another tortoise, since providing veterinary care was one of the provisions in the adoption application form.

Can I give my tortoise to a friend if I can no longer keep it?

If you are no longer able to care for your desert tortoise, you may give it to a friend or family member, but you must make sure they register the tortoise under their name. This same rule applies to hatchlings. You owe it to your tortoise to make sure the person you are giving it to knows what is involved and required for the animal’s proper care. Make sure, if you are giving your tortoise to a child, that a parent or guardian knows of, and gives consent for, the adoption.

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