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The Accidental Tourist

Published on: Jul. 30, 2011

desert tortoise closeup

Recently a logger in Shannon County contacted the local conservation agent. "How big can a box turtle can get?" he asked. "Because I've found one the size of half a basketball.”

Not from Around Here, Are You?

Turns out the logger’s “box turtle” was a female desert tortoise, a federally threatened species. This critter, which we named Fred (we should have called her "Freda," but "Fred" seems to suit her), had been in captivity and had escaped or been released into Missouri's wilds, far from her native Southwest desert home. These land tortoises, which may live up to 80 years, are vegetarians and powerful diggers, creating tunnels up to 40 feet long. My guess is Fred didn’t much care for the rocky ground around here.

Stranger in a Strange Land

I wish I could say Fred's escape or abandonment was unusual, but it's not. People often release exotic pets when they become too big, expensive or troublesome to keep. The consequences can be tragic for both the pet and local wildlife. The animal often dies of stress, starvation or the elements. If it finds no predators and survives, it can destroy habitat, consume or out-compete local wildlife, even spread diseases. Fortunately for Fred, who was hungry, had the sniffles and had no place to dig--something instinct drives her to do--her rescuers called us. Because she is a federally threatened and protected species, we are trying to find a suitable home for her.

Choose Pets Carefully

Want to help? Think carefully before you take home an exotic pet, whether it's a tortoise, python, piranha or gray parrot. Think about the animal's life-long requirements--not just now, when it's cute and small, but 20 or 80 years from now. Are you going to put the tortoise in your will? Can you afford the fresh greens to feed it all winter? What about proper medical care? Does your vet know how to care for tortoises, and can you afford the treatments? Remember, too, that Missouri is fighting exotic species on many fronts, from Asian carp to zebra mussels in our waters and bush honeysuckles and sericea lespedeza on our landscapes. Missourians care about our fish, forest and wildlife. Keeping non-native species out--even ones as cute as Fred--helps us protect it for future generations.

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Comments

On August 11th, 2011 at 11:22am cardem said:

teacher 13, Thank you so much for the comment.  When I was teaching my over all objective was to get kids to think and make good choices.  Sounds like you are much the same.  Thank you for helping bring up the next generation of young people who care about our fish forest and wildlife. 

On August 11th, 2011 at 11:18am cardem said:

Linda, Thanks so much for reading the Pine Needle and for taking the time to comment.  Since she is a federally protected species, the feds picked Freda up this morning.  We have been told that she will be taken care of.  We just wanted people to think.  She won't be in an MDC facility since she is not a Missouri Native.  (No offense Freda!) I know they were hoping to place her in an AZA accreditied zoo.  Thanks again for taking the time to send us your thoughts. We sincerely appreciate it. 

On August 11th, 2011 at 5:08am Linda Jepson said:

Will Freda end up in one of Missouri's zoos, or at one of MDC's department headquarters for display? This is an interesting story for any herpetologist or someone who likes reptiles. Where ever she ends up I sure hope they are qualified in caring for her and her needs.

On August 10th, 2011 at 8:19pm teacher13 said:

Everyone should read this article. Soo sad. I had a site that kept emailing me that it sells exoctic tortoises! I unsubscribed from their site. I thought it was an educational site to help my kids learn about them, not advertising to buy.
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