Few people get the chance to observe a desert tortoise, one of Arizona's most remarkable animals, in the wild. When one encounters a tortoise, the first reaction may be to want to "help" it by bringing it home. However, doing so is not only illegal, but is harmful to the tortoise. So, what should you do if you find a tortoise? That depends on where you find the tortoise.
If you find a tortoise in an undeveloped area, it is likely a wild tortoise. This is a rare encounter that few people ever get a chance to experience, so enjoy it, but do not disturb the tortoise. Disturbing the tortoise in any way, such as picking it up, can cause it to release the contents of its bladder which could lead to dehydration and death. The Department is interested in where tortoises are found in the wild, so if you encounter a wild tortoise, please email us at TurtlesProject@azgfd.gov.
Desert tortoises have many remarkable adaptations that allow them to withstand the harsh conditions of the desert - they do not need to be provided food and shelter by humans. Removing a tortoise from the wild dooms the tortoise to a life in captivity, and they can live a long time! Once a wild tortoise is brought into captivity, it may be exposed to diseases or parasites from other pets that would be detrimental to wild tortoise populations. In fact, it is thought that upper respiratory tract disease, a disease that has caused die-offs of Mojave desert tortoises, was introduced to the Mojave population of the desert tortoise through release of captive tortoises.
The only situation in which a wild tortoise should be handled is if it is crossing the road and is in immediate danger. In this case you can gently lift it (not too high) off the road, being mindful of traffic, and carefully put it on the other side, facing the same direction it was going. Otherwise, simply let the tortoise be and enjoy the opportunity to observe such a remarkable ancient animal.
If you find a tortoise in a residential area, away from any natural areas, it is likely an escaped captive tortoise. Please contact your nearest desert tortoise adoption facility to make arrangements to get this tortoise in the adoption program. If you cannot bring it to one of Arizona’s adoption facilities (listed below) immediately, keep it in a clean, dry box in a quiet location, either inside or in the shade. Put up signs around your neighborhood to let your neighbors know that you found a desert tortoise. If no one claims it and you would like to care for it, you will need to legally adopt it from the state of Arizona.