The Story of Joshua Tree Tortoise Rescue
by Rae Packard
Several years ago, I moved from San Diego to the hi-desert community of Yucca Valley, California. One of the reasons I chose this small, remote area was because of "Cecil," my adopted desert tortoise. After all, the eastern Mojave Desert is the natural home of the threatened California desert tortoise, and I was sure he would love returning to his roots in the natural confines of my home. And Cecil did flourish – for about seven months. That's when the meter reader from the local electric company accidentally left the backyard gate open, and Cecil wandered off.
The next three days were a nightmare. I frantically called the local nature museum, Joshua Tree National Park, Animal Control, the pet store and local veterinarians. "How do I try to locate my lost desert tortoise?" I desperately asked. No one had any idea. After posting flyers promising a large reward all over my neighborhood, I finally contacted the closest chapter of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club in San Bernardino. A very understanding woman told me to search in 90-degree angles from where Cecil may have escaped. "Keep looking. You'll find him."
Actually, a little neighbor boy found him. Cecil had been flipped over on his back and was being chewed on by a dog. The boy chased the dog away, saw Cecil's California Department of Fish and Game tag on his rear shell and took the tortoise home so his mom could call the department. Before his mom had a chance to phone them though, the boy saw my flyers and called me with the great news.
Reunited, and spoiling Cecil with a huge dinner salad after his three-day ordeal, I decided that something must be done to educate the local residents about these regal creatures with whom they closely share their desert environment. Hence was born Joshua Tree Tortoise Rescue.
Within several months, I was granted a permit by the California Department of Fish and Game and had set up a network of wildlife rescue agencies, conservancy and land management organizations. I enlisted the help of Joshua Tree National Park, veterinarians, pet shops, the 29 Palms Marine Base, the local nature museum, schools and community service organizations in a massive effort to educate the local residents and visitors to the hi-desert regarding the plight of the California desert tortoise.
Joshua Tree Tortoise Rescue now takes in and rehabilitates almost 100 tortoises per year, mostly from dog attacks, car accidents and disease. Tortoises that become well are put up for adoption to individuals or families who qualify.
The Rescue also provides a legal alternative preventing individuals who have had a desert tortoise as a pet for any period of time from releasing them back into the wild. You see, the desert tortoise is extremely susceptible to a deadly respiratory disease, and it is illegal to release a captive tortoise back into the wild. This protects the wild population from disease. Our organization and a dedicated crew of volunteers spend countless hours speaking to the public regarding the importance of just leaving wild desert tortoises alone and in peace.
I still have Cecil, and he enjoys the constant parade of visitors the Rescue receives every year, until late November when all the tortoises hibernate until March. My family and I take a small vacation before we're back again brainstorming new ideas for fundraising events, caring for the sick and injured and answering all kinds of calls – especially from those adoptive "parents" whose tortoise may have wandered off.
For more information regarding the California desert tortoise, how you can help or for a Rescue volunteer to speak to your group, feel free to contact the Rescue.
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