Don't confuse tortoises with sea turtle. They aren't one and the same. Susan made that quite clear to me when I interviewed the founder of the American Tortoise Rescue organization. "Don't worry," she said, "It's confusing for most people."
It's quite simple. Tortoises dwell on land, while their marine cousins, sea turtles, make their home in the sea.
Unfortunately, both are endangered species and in need of some serious rescuing.
The American Tortoise Rescue is a place for info about the care, feeding, and rehabilitation of endangered and captive-bred tortoises. They help to abolish "live market" slaughter of turtles, illegal selling of hatchlings, and the importation and exportation of a variety of tortoise species and keep them away from everyday threats.
Though they have rescued well over 3,000 turtles and tortoises (which Susan will tell you about later), they house, give or take, about 125 of them.
The organization has been around for almost 20 years, in which Susan has really seen it grow. At one point, they were the only national rescue organization of its kind.
Read on to find out this one-time cat rescuer fell in love with tortoises and turtles and built an organization created to save them.
What is the American Tortoise Rescue organization?
American Tortoise Rescue (ATR) is certified by state and federal agencies as a nonprofit 501(c) (3) corporation founded in 1990 to provide for the protection of all species of tortoise and turtle. We offer permanent sanctuary to abandoned and lost tortoises, as well as those that are confiscated from law enforcement and require temporary housing. Foundlings that cannot be adopted because of ill health remain in the care of American Tortoise Rescue for the remainder of their lives. ATR has saved more than 3000 turtles and tortoises since its inception.
You have been around for almost 20 years. How has the group grown and changed since then?
When we started out, we had two Russian Tortoises and put the world out to vets, rescues and pet stores that we would help them rescue any stray turtles and tortoises. It grew quickly so that we had about 25 living in our backyard. We also were the only national rescue in the country at that time specializes in turtle and tortoises so as the word spread we became inundated with these unwanted animals. We have even saved one from America Samoa. Gradually over the years other rescues started and took some of the load off us but not before we rescued more than 3,000 throughout the world rehoming them to new situations. We no longer rescue except in rare circumstances. We educate.
We moved the rescue to an acre and a half in Malibu in 1997 so everyone has more room and the various species can be separated.
How did you personally get involved with the effort?
My husband mentioned that he loved tortoises. I was a cat rescuer so I bought him some tortoises. I would never do that again but I didn’t know better – there are thousands that need rescuing each year – never buy a tortoise or turtle. When we found out how many were being let go into the wild because people didn’t want them we knew we had to do something.
Why do tortoises need to be conserved, rescued, etc?
There are indigenous turtles and tortoises in every state and country but the pet trade has allowed them to be caught and sold out of their respective countries and habitats. These poor creatures languish in pet stores and tanks ripped form their freedom, Then people toss them back into the wild even though they don’t belong there – say an African tortoise being let go in Alaska. Habitat destruction, cravings for food in the live Asian markets. The Army practicing on their burrows – all destroy these gentle creatures that have been around 200 million years.
What are some of the issues facing tortoises today?
Same as above and worse. Scientists think that tortoises will all be gone in 50 years thanks to the selfishness of man.
How does the group help to educate the world on turtles?
I am a public relations professional so I send out news releases to media on topics that pertain to saving tortoises, I have a web site where we educate visitors, and we have a Facebook page, a cause page also on Facebook and a Twitter account. I send care sheets to vets and answer about five – 10 emails a day with questions.
On the site, you address the fact that the group works to together to abolish “live market” slaughter of turtles, illegal sale of hatchlings, and importation and exportation of a variety of species of turtles. Where are these problems occurring and how did you find out about them? Name some other problems turtles are currently facing.
With a large influx of Asians into the US, the demand for live food markets grew so now you can find them in many US cities where they sell turtles, frog, rabbits, birds and other live animals to eat. It is primitive and not necessary to have “fresh” food with refrigeration in this country. Los Angeles and San Francisco have thriving live food markets and friends told me about them. I have seen the horrors. Tiny turtles are also being sold at mercados, and given away as prizes at county fairs – all of which are illegal. The more we buy turtles, the more importation we will have. People should only adopt. We export our own turtles to Asia for food. Hundreds of thousands of pounds every year – they ate all of theirs not they want to eat all of ours.
You have an “in-house population.” Where do you keep the turtles and what do you do with them and for them?
We have about 100 of them fenced in and separated by species on our mini-ranch in Malibu. These are only the ones who are unadoptable. They have missing feet or have been traumatized so much we cannot rehome them again. Aldo we have our own pets we have adopted over the years like four sulcatas, some box turtles including our mascot Bunkle who was found and brought to us in 1990, our pond with about 10 water turtles including our very first one Fluffy that we found in 1990, and of course our cranky 80 year old Leopard tortoise, Rosie.
What can the average person do to aid the effort to conserve, help, and educate the world on tortoises?
Adopt don’t buy. Complain to large chains like Petco about the tortoises they sell that mostly end up dead (about 90 percent of all non captive bred tortoises end up dead). Do not keep tortoises in schools – it’s miserable for them to be in tanks and the kids are exposed to salmonella. Do not keep a turtle in a tank – they are miserable forever. Read as much as you can and if possible donate to the American Tortoise rescue so that we can continue our work. Donations are down more than 90 percent because of the economy.
Coming up next...10 Common Turtle Myths.