Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Another Foreclosure Casualty: Desert Tortoise

I was showing a vacant foreclosed house in South Tucson a few weeks ago when my client noticed a tiny little desert tortoise on the concrete patio. The yard was surrounded by chain link fence, and any part that wasn't covered with the house, shed or patio had been paved. Every square inch. The former owners of this house really didn't want to do any yard work. This left no food and no burrowing opportunity for the poor tortoise.

It takes at least a month after a house is foreclosed before it goes on the market, so this tortoise had been abandoned and trapped with no food or water for at least that long, probably longer. I live in the desert, and thought I would be doing this captive tortoise a favor if I released her in my yard. That was when I was as ignorant as the people who had imprisoned and abandoned her.

I had proclaimed her a female because she had a flat belly, and I knew males have a concave belly. I took her home and released her in the shady north side of my house. She went down a pack rat hole as far as she could. I could still see the back fourth of her. I did some internet research and found that captive tortoises eat shredded carrots, kale and spinach, among other things, but those were the veggies I happened to have, so I put them outside the hole with a flower pot saucer of water buried below grade. Then I left.

I couldn't stop thinking about her, though. I named her Ophelia, after my favorite song by The Band. I checked to see whether she had eaten anything, and it didn't seem she had. The veggies were drying within minutes in the 0% humidity. I pulled her out of her hole and put her in the water dish. She seemed to drink. Then I put her in front of the food. She ate some of the carrots, so I went away again.

Next time I checked, she was back in the hole. I pulled her out again, and excavated the hole. As I was doing this, I realized I was lucky not to encounter a scorpion, snake or rat. I let her go back in.

Next time I checked, she was so far in the hole, I needed a flashlight to see her. I knew I was bothering her, so I left more food and decided she was on her own.

By now, I had checked the Arizona Game and Fish site and realized I was in way over my head. For one, it is illegal to release a captive tortoise. I know of two couples who adopted tortoises (Panzer and Helmut) legally from the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, and it isn't simple. The caretakers needed to acknowledge that they are making a 100 year commitment to the care of their tortoise. Then they had to provide an enclosure with walls a foot below grade so the tortoise can't dig his way out. A burrow must be built. Preferably there should be separate burrows designed for staying cool in summer and warm during the winter hibernation. A patch of grass must be provided, along with a crop of native flowers, a wading and drinking dish, and daily vegetable diet supplements. This is much more responsibility than I wanted to take on.

I thought it was cruel to keep a tortoise by itself, but learned that the Desert Museum only allows one tortoise per household because tortoises are loners, fighters, and breeders. There are already 300 to 400 captive tortoises needing adoption in Arizona, so more tortoise are not needed.

Unfortunately, I talked to many people who knew of people who had breeding tortoises. They blithely allow the tortoises to roam around their yard breeding and eating what they can find. The people throw some low-nutrition lettuce to the tortoises when they think of it, and give the baby tortoises away to friends. Ophelia was probably the result of one of these thoughtless breeders.

I hadn't seen Ophelia for a few days and was feeling guilty. I could no longer see her by shining a flash light down her hole. I didn't know if she or the rabbits were eating some of the food I provided, but for the most part, it just seemed to dry up and get wasted.

The Saturday before last, we had a glorious thunder storm in the Tucson Mountains. I thought Ophelia might come back from wherever she had gone and seek refuge in the pack rat hole. Much to my surprise, I found her emerging from the partially collapsed hole, covered with mud. Apparently she had been hiding in there the whole time.

I realized I had to give her up. I wasn't planning on making a 100 year commitment when I "rescued" her. I called the Desert Museum to ask about bringing her to them. I got no answer on Sunday. I called again on Monday, and got call back from a volunteer. She said the Desert Museum, the only official tortoise adoption program in Tucson, probably couldn't take her because they have so many tortoises already. She assumed I had removed this tortoise from the desert, and said I should take it back where I found it. I said returning it to an abandoned house wasn't an option. She said she might be able to get a tortoise program in Phoenix to take her. Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into? But Ophelia was my responsibility now.

Fortunately for Ophelia and me, the Desert Museum was sympathetic to my misguided actions, and agreed to take her. Steve and I took her to the Desert Museum and gave her to Renee, the herpetologist. When I told Renee over the phone that Ophelia's shell was four inches long, Renee said she was a baby. However, when she saw Ophelia, and counted the growth rings on the hexagons on Ophelia's shell, she said Ophelia was eight to ten years old, but severely malnourished. I had noticed that the hexagons on Ophelia's shell were raised, not flat like the photos of desert tortoises I had seen. She said those bumps are called pyramiding, and they are the result of a poor diet. How sad! It's also possible she is a he, because the males don't get their concave bellies until they are about eight to ten inches long.

I hope Ophelia is learning to eat alfalfa and other healthy foods. The Desert Museum will keep her until she is large enough that she won't easily get stepped on. Then they will try to find her a home with responsible caretakers. I will call in a few months to see how she is doing.

Tea Bag Wisdom

The fortune on my tea bag: "You will feel fulfilled when you do the impossible for someone else."

Closing a short sale or helping a buyer purchase a foreclosed house comes to mind.