Karen Berry Rescues Desert Tortoises

Desert tortoise

“People are downsizing and moving out of California,” Karen Berry told the Palisades Rotary Club in August. “And they don’t know what to do with their tortoises.”

Berry, who is the treasurer and adoption team leader for the San Fernando Valley Chapter of California Turtle & Tortoise Club (CTTC), helps with rescue and placement of the reptiles.

It is illegal to take the tortoises out of California, and “you can’t put them back in the desert,” Berry said, noting that since the reptiles have lived domestically, they will not be able to fend for themselves in the wild.

The tortoise, which is the third largest turtle in the world, was placed on both the California and Federal Endangered Species Lists in 1989 and 1990, respectively. Its status is “threatened,” which is just below endangered.

Some animals were taken from the desert before it became illegal to do so in 1973.  Anyone who has a tortoise needs a permit. “We don’t own them,” Berry said. “Every desert tortoise belongs to the state of California.”

She added that “We got one back from Alaska and one from Vermont.”

Karen Berry holding a rescued desert tortoise.

Tortoises, which have good vision and a good sense of smell, are also territorial. During its 50 to 100 years of life, a wild tortoise rarely moves more than a couple of miles from its birthplace. Intruders are not tolerated.

It’s also hard to rehome tortoises because “It is so ingrained in pets, ‘I need to get home,’” said Berry, who explained she first got interested in the reptile when one came into their home, when she was a child. “They’re the perfect pet because they don’t bark, they don’t make noise, they don’t annoy neighbors.”

She described them, “It’s like having your own dinosaur.” The animals have been in the desert for tens of thousands of years. They escape the high temperatures by burrowing deep underground.

“Their back legs are like an elephant,” Berry said. “They are powerful and can shove a cinder block easily. They are very, very strong.”

Tortoises are threatened by raven predation, urbanization, illegal collection for the pet trade, off-highway vehicles and upper-respiratory tract infections, Berry said. “Solar farms have displaced many.”

Berry spoke about the perfect diet for tortoise, which includes hi-fiber, low protein and no sugar. “No fruit other than a cactus pear,” she said.

If someone sees a tortoise flipped on its back, it means it can’t turn itself right side up, and Berry tells people to gently turn it back over.

Tortoises are starting to go into hibernation and generally stay in burrows until mid-to-late March.

Berry said that 100 animals were seized from a house and 80 were tortoises.

“We get calls from shelters,” she said and explained that if someone wants to adopt, they have to fill out an application, followed by an in-person visit. “Fencing is most important because they have to stay in the yard,” said Berry, who spent 34 years in law enforcement, including some years as a crime scene technician.

After retirement, she started volunteering with the CTTC, and also serves as a foster parent to take care of tortoises that can’t be placed right away because of diet or health issues.

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