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.”
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.
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.
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.