Saturday, October 10, 2009

Desert Tortoise

The desert tortoise is an anachronism and it is a wonder they are still around. While other desert dwellers survive by camouflage, speed, sharp edges or poison, the desert tortoise only has large and plodding on its resume. As if to make the point, the only desert tortoise I've seen in the wild (see below) was a large tortoise in the Indian Cove area of Joshua Tree National Park in June 1998 that lumbered through an area filled with teenagers on a stake rock climbing high adventure activity. Not exactly the best strategy for survival of the species. I actually have seen another, sort of, in the wild. It was while I was traveling along the I-15 going 90 mph along the Jornada del Muerto, the stretch between Las Vegas and Glendale. This much smaller tortoise was walking down the freeway in my lane and I had to swerve to miss it. I was going much too fast to stop and there was other traffic. Again, not a great survival plan.
That said, desert tortoises are wonderful. I've had two as pets. The first was as a young boy in Salt Lake. My Uncle Ted gave me one he'd found walking down a road (see the trend). Some of the scutes on its shell had been painted different colors and a hole was drilled through its carapace and it had a metal ring attached through it. I recall worrying about it in the middle of the winter, with lots of snow on the ground. I went out in the back yard and dug it up (we attached a rope to the metal ring so it couldn't get away) and transferred it to the cement lined bomb shelter just off of our garage (our house was built in the early 60's during the height of the Cuban missile crisis). I think that mid-hibernation wake-up call may have done it in. The second pet was one we received after our neighbor in Redlands, Dale Norris, died. Dale had at least three desert tortoises roaming in his back yard. On more than one occasion, one made it in to our back yard and we had to return it to him. After his death, after we'd move to the south side of Redlands, his wife asked if we would like to keep "Hooker." Of course we said, "yes." We're not sure how Hooker got his (her?) name, but with our young children, we decided "Hook" was a better moniker. Given the time Dale had Hook, and the time the person before Dale had Hook, we figured Hook was at least 50 years old. See Hook below.
I picked an area of our yard off to the east side of the house and designated it our desert tortoise pen. We closed it off with a small fence, dug a tunnel in the ground, covered it with plywood and then covered the plywood with dirt. We also had to register Hook with the Fish and Game to legally keep him and received a registration number on a metal tag we had to affix to Hook's shell. Hook at the entrance to his tunnel, below.
The arrangement worked quite well and we kept Hook for five or six years. He hibernated in his tunnel each winter and came out in the spring.
Later, when we decided we wanted to develop that side of our yard, we gave Hook to friends that had other tortoises in their yard. Below, Hook disappears into his tunnel.
I've spent a lot of time in desert tortoise country in the desert. I've been to the desert tortoise refuge near California City and found many desert tortoise holes and I've found a piece of desert tortoise shell in the mountains above Corn Springs, but still have only the sightings to relate above. Currently, great effort and expense is going toward trying to preserve the desert tortoise, particularly at the Fort Irwin Military Installation. I hope the efforts will be successful. They are a wonderful part of our Southern California deserts.

In April 2011 I was driving home from church through a stretch of open fields. I had to do a double-take as I passed a desert tortoise hauling tail (at least as hauling as desert tortoises are capable of) down the side of the road. I stopped, backed up, and got out of the car to investigate.
There was not a tag showing it as a captive desert tortoise (as required by the California Fish and Game), but I am guessing it may have been an escaped captive. It had a roughed-up shell, an indication of a rough life.
I have had pause to wonder if it actually was a desert tortoise. The beak looks perhaps a bit more hooked.
and it may have a little more greenish in the skin than I've noticed before,
but I'm going to assume it was a desert tortoise unless I find something that shows me differently. It was fun to watch it eat weeds,
particularly when it appeared to use its foot to study the leaves.
I love the pattern on their thick shells
and their long, skinny legs, which seem so incongruous with the massive shell.
It was a wonderful treat for a sunny Sunday morning.

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