Giant Tortoises Overwhelm U.S. Rescues - American Tortoise
Rescue Calls for a Moratorium on Sales
Malibu, CA - August 28, 2009
- Turtle and tortoise wildlife groups and rescue organizations throughout North America, led by Malibu based American Tortoise
Rescue (ATR), are calling on the pet industry, reptile wholesalers and private breeders to stop the sale of giant tortoises
commonly called sulcatas.
Geochelone sulcata is a hardy and personable species of tortoise. Native
to sub-Saharan Africa, it became part of the lucrative pet trade during the 1990s. It has an engaging nature, is attractive
and sells for anywhere between $50 and $300. These traits make it one of the most commonly purchased pet tortoises in North
America. Unknown to the unwary buyer, however, is that sulcatas are the third largest species of tortoise in the world weighing
up to 200 pounds or more, attaining this size in a very short period of time. Adult female sulcatas can easily produce 50
-100 eggs a year. It is not unusual to see hundreds of hatchlings for sale at reptile shows even though selling any turtle
or tortoise in the U.S. under four inches is illegal.
According to Susan Tellem, co-founder of
ATR, the sale of sulcatas today is similar to the pet trade's large-scale sale of iguanas during the early to mid-90s. Many
people bought cute baby iguanas not realizing that they would grow to as long as six feet and become aggressive. Just like
iguanas, Sulcata breeders and pet stores that sell them create problems that other people, especially reptile rescuers, have
"The pet industry constantly looks for small, exotic animals with a big price
tag," Tellem says. "We've conducted a survey of sulcata owners about what they were told when they purchased their
tortoises. Whether at a pet store or reptile show - the answer is the same. 'It won't get bigger than its tank.' This is patently
ridiculous and often a deliberate lie."
Tellem says, "New owners quickly become aware
of the difficulties associated with having a potentially destructive non-housebroken animal of this size. A fully-grown sulcata
is strong and aggressive and can easily move furniture and damage or destroy a typical house or apartment wall. When they
start to dig up the property, it looks something like a mine field."
Tellem, who founded
the nonprofit ATR 16 years ago with her husband, Marshall Thompson, says, "Many owners assume that when the tortoise
becomes a problem, zoos will take them. This is simply not true. Zoos are not interested in cast-off pets."
Tellem says that the zoos, instead, refer people to her rescue, as well as others. She has placed hundreds into good
homes but it is not the answer because it is not easy finding places with a half-acre or more, which is what a sulcata needs.
Based on the record number of hatchlings and juveniles sold in pets stores as compared to hundreds in the ‘90s, this
is the beginning of a deluge of unwanted pets.
Tellem adds that some owners mistakenly think
that they can sell the huge animal for a large profit. "There is no market for adult sulcatas," Tellem says. "The
only options remaining are to dump the animal in the wild where they will definitely end up dead, or to give it up for adoption
to a rescue group like ours." She added that her rescue is full as are most others and so the only option is finding
a compassionate adopter who is willing to put up with the destruction.
Aside from the potential
for a slow death by freezing or starving that "dumped" sulcatas face, there are other problems. These include infecting
native wildlife with parasites and foreign diseases. This could result in the eradication of already threatened native species. There is also the issue of introduction of yet another non-native species into a precariously balanced ecosystem.
Tellem says that the option of placing the animal with a rescue organization or rehabber sounds
good to most overwhelmed owners. Unfortunately, of those thousands of cute tortoises that are sold every year, rescue organizations
can only take a few of them once they are huge.
"Since the sulcata can live 50 years or
more, and because the males fight when placed together, overcrowded rescues run out of space. At that point, there is no solution,"
Tellem and Thompson say that breeders won't turn their backs on an obvious money
making machine. "So what we request is simply market driven economics. People shouldn't buy sulcatas. Pet stores should
stop selling them. Reptile shows must have a 'no sulcata' policy. Only then will breeders have no choice but to stop breeding
them," the pair agrees.
American Tortoise Rescue (ATR), Malibu, Calif., is a nonprofit founded
in 1990 to provide for the protection of all species of tortoise and turtle. It provides permanent sanctuary to abandoned
and lost tortoises, as well as those that are confiscated from law enforcement and require temporary housing. For more information,
contact: American Tortoise Rescue at www.tortoise.com; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.