By Erin Taylor
KINGMAN - The Kingman Game and Fish Office recently got an unexpected and upsetting package left on its doorstep.
Officials with the office said they opened the front door one morning and found a desert tortoise in a box. The tortoise's shell was painted entirely in gold and the words "meat loaf" and "fat bottom" were scrawled in green and red.
"This isn't the first time we've had a tortoise painted, cleaned, or polished, but it ranks near the top in regards to abuse done to the tortoise," said John Kraft, non-game biologist with the Game and Fish office in Kingman. "The tortoise was exposed to many toxins over most of its body."
Officials quickly took pictures of the tortoise for documentation purposes and then took the reptile to Cerbat Animal Hospital, where the paint was carefully removed.
Game and Fish spokesman Zen Mocarski said most people don't understand that a tortoise's shell is a living part of the animal with its ribs and spine fused to the top of it.
Abuse of a tortoise's shell, sadly, isn't new. Mocarski said he's seen one shell that had a hole drilled into it, presumably to allow the tortoise to be tethered and prevent it from wandering off. Not only does this sort of action harm the tortoise, it's also illegal, he said.
Desert tortoises are a protected species in Arizona and it is against the law to harass, kill or remove them from the wild. If seen on or next to a roadway, a person can help by holding the tortoise on both sides of the shell, keeping it low to the ground and moving it across a road in the direction it was heading.
Mocarski said it's important to keep them in the direction they're heading.
"They are very tenacious animals. They want to go where they want to go," he said.
Unless it is in a life-threatening situation, a desert tortoise should not be picked up or touched, he added. Removal from the wild usually means a life in captivity.
"Once captive, always captive," Mocarski said.
According to Game and Fish, tortoises live an average of 60 years and are solitary animals that do not move around much. They live in a harsh environment and are often on the edge of survival.
When people release captive tortoises back into the wild, they are putting the animal in unfamiliar habitat where there may not be enough resources for them to survive, the department said. Once a tortoise is placed in an area, they have few options on where to go. It could also displace other wild tortoises and introduce disease into the wild population.
Game and Fish currently has seven tortoises, including the "fat bottom" reptile, available for adoption through its Adopt-a-Tortoise Program.
"Some people do a fantastic job taking care of their captive tortoise," Kraft said. "They build burrows, landscape their habitat with native plants, and regularly take their tortoise in for checkups. They take pride in providing a safe and healthy home to a piece of Arizona's natural heritage."
Kraft added that owners should never breed their captive tortoise. Game and Fish several years ago took possession of more than 85 tortoises on the property of Bullhead City man who had been breeding them. It took three trips to gather up all the reptiles, which were then taken to Phoenix.
"Captive-bred tortoises do not benefit wild populations, and because they live so long, breeding your captive tortoise places an additional burden on our Tortoise Adoption Program," Kraft said.
Game and Fish personnel said they would prefer these animals be left in the wild and advise people to let the tortoises complete their journeys without interference.
Individuals wishing to adopt are required to build a secure habitat for the tortoise prior to taking possession. For information regarding adoption requirements, check the Game and Fish website at azgfd.gov/tortoise. For those who meet the requirements or do not have the Internet, contact the Kingman regional office at (928) 692-7700.