“There are quite a few rattlesnakes in the area, so please stay in your vehicle and text me when you arrive.” This message from Tegan Wolf, Desert Tortoise Adoption Program Coordinator for Arizona Game and Fish Department, was likely meant as a warning. But, for us, it was an enticement.
We were meeting with Tegan to see about volunteer opportunities for the new Wildlife Center at the Game and Fish location, hoping to work with reptiles. Learning that rattlesnakes occupied a lot of space here only served to confirm that we were in the right place. We are always on the lookout for snakes!
To begin our volunteer service, we would be working in the tortoise adoption pens, raking, picking up tortoise droppings, counting individuals to determine any escapes or deaths, and removing old food and delivering fresh. As many as 10 baby tortoises can occupy one large enclosure. “Some mortality in the hatchlings is normal,” said Tegan. “Not all the babies survive.” Adult enclosures usually house no more than one tortoise. “It is super rare for them to get along no matter gender,” says Tegan, “plus we don’t want breeding.”
According to Tegan, the adoption facility exists to place unwanted or surrendered homeless tortoises with people who are willing to build proper enclosures and provide long-term care for an animal that could outlive them. All the tortoises are captive bred.
Tegan explained and demonstrated the duties we would perform, and it was obvious how much she cared for the tortoises. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” she replied when I asked. She not only knew the names of each, she also related their personalities.
And we definitely noticed that they have personalities! A couple days after our training, as we began cleaning enclosures with the young tortoises, several of the babies ambled over and began examining my boots and nibbling on the shoestrings. Their curiosity was evident. In the adult enclosures, several emerged from their burrows to greet or inspect the new arrivals scooping up debris from their surroundings. Some followed us as we worked.
Most people who want to adopt a tortoise, according to Tegan, are looking for an adult. They are not usually interested in hatchlings. Anyone adopting a tortoise or two would need to build a well-insulated burrow. Their yard would need to be enclosed and preferably have a grassy area available for the animal. The captive tortoises are given grass, hay, and limited produce such as romaine lettuce and occasional watermelon. If someone wants to adopt more than one tortoise, Tegan is happy to let them try the same gender together. “But they have to be very vigilant,” she says, “and they need to be aware that if they aren’t, one of the tortoises could end up in a fatality.” And the tortoise would need to be returned if the adopters leave the state.
As we finished our training with Tegan, we made arrangements to come on a weekly basis to help out. We are looking forward to working with the welcoming staff at Game and Fish, as well as these personable animals! But we have yet to see a rattlesnake…