In September of 2018, a very special tortoise was on an adventure. No one knows where he’d come from or for how long he’d been traveling, but this day found him scouting the perimeter of a garage in suburban Palmdale, CA. The people who owned this garage worked as fosters for a local dog and cat shelter, and they welcomed the interesting (although uninvited) guest. Close inspection revealed that he was a Russian tortoise, obviously not a wild native, and must have either escaped or been released by his previous owners. The fosters searched the community for anyone missing a tortoise, but found no one. His origins would remain a mystery.
He was quickly donated to Zovargo, since his rescuers knew that we would be able to provide not only the right environment and diet, but also the life of adventure that he apparently craved. He was renamed “Tortuga” and has become a star animal ambassador, inspiring audiences with his story of bravery and resilience.
It was not simply his desire to roam that earned Tortuga this courageous reputation. Wild Russian tortoises have had to adapt to the extremes of a high desert region that includes parts of Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. They survive winters that reach 3ºF as well as long, dry summers and continuous drought.
So how do they do it?
Although small and slow-moving, these tortoises have incredibly strong legs and feet that they use to dig 6-foot-long burrows where they take shelter from the cold. These burrows additionally provide a safe place for them to undergo a reptilian form of hibernation called brumation, which allows them to spend the harshest parts of winter in a deep, energy-conserving sleep. They are also able to utilize food sources that other animals cannot, such as several plants that are toxic to native mammals. These adaptations make Russian tortoises uniquely well-suited for this habitat, and might be the source of Tortuga’s tenacious, go-getter personality.
This little, approximately 30-year-old vagabond has found a permanent home with Zovargo. When Tortuga is not out at programs, wowing audiences with his speed (sort of) and sharing his message of courage, he enjoys patrolling his new habitat and eating lots of leafy greens. He has a brand new hut that affords him lots of space to roam as well as a heated, insulated den where he can keep warm at night.
(picture of Tort in painted den)
Although he and other tortoises may look like low-maintenance pets, they actually require a carefully maintained environment and special diet in order for them to stay healthy throughout their very long lives. With proper care and nutrition, 30-year-old Tortuga has easily another two decades of life ahead of him… and Russian tortoises are one of the shorter-lived members of the family. These qualities raise important questions for anyone thinking about bringing a tortoise into their life. Does the prospect of providing lots of space, light, heat, and specialized nutrition to an animal for 50+ years excite you? Are you okay with an animal that can be very destructive should he get bored and want to go for a stroll? Can you appreciate an animal that doesn’t demonstrate affection as we classically understand it?
If you answered yes to ALL of these questions, then a tortoise might be the right pet for you! And because many are surrendered to shelters and rescue groups, adoption is a very viable option for prospective tortoise parents. There are many of these wonderful reptiles in need of good homes throughout the San Diego area, and unlike the babies that you find in pet stores, these are grown adults that won’t outlive you! You can also rest easy knowing that your money isn’t funding the wildlife trade, and won’t contribute to the cruel treatment of wild animals around the world.
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These organizations do great work and often have turtles and tortoises available for adoption: