Starting a Turtle and Tortoise Rescue

Think Before you Leap

Just about 25 years ago, I made the mistake of buying two Russian tortoises at a pet store because my husband mentioned casually that he liked turtles.  Fast forward, and we at American Tortoise Rescue saved more than 3,000 of these helpless, but wonderful creatures. How did that happen?

When you adopt or buy an animal – we advocate always adopt – you have a duty to find out what it needs to survive – food, water, baths, vaccinations – whatever it needs. When my husband and I discovered what turtles and tortoises needed, we found that they were in terrible trouble due to the cruel pet trade, habitat destruction, smuggling, the live food markets and other dangers and should never be bought and sold. We also discovered back then that there was not national rescue for them. So began our journey into rescue and education. It started with a backyard and grew into an international passion.

Now, fortunately, there are many reptile rescues so we happily stepped back several years ago and do mostly education.  But others who want to follow in our footsteps should know the positives and the pitfalls.  The most important thing you need to start a rescue is MONEY. If you cannot afford unexpected vet bills or massive food bills, don’t bother. 

When we adopted our first water turtle 24 years ago, Fluffy a water cooter, from a kid’s backpack at a pet store, we were flummoxed. He probably got her out of the Los Angeles river, and we certainly did not want her to come to a bad end. So we took her home. She was in our bathtub as we did not have a pond and she refused to eat. After a few weeks of terror thinking we were killing her, we did more reading and realized she hibernates at the time of year we got her…November to April or so…and that keeping her in the bathtub with all sorts of distractions was not going to be ideal. A turtle needs to hibernate to restore its health and prepare for a summer of swimming and eating and sunning. 

That meant we needed to install a pond. Again a pricey proposition. We’ve done three so far – lesson number one – the preformed ones you get at the pet store are great above ground, but when we sunk ours, it sprang a leak after the gophers chewed through it. Then we tried heavy duty pond liners formed in whatever shape we wanted. It lasted about four months and gophers made short work of it. So now we conducted a fundraising campaign just for a new concrete pond and asked for volunteers in the construction business to help build it. Thankfully, a friend had an event and raised $1500 for the pond. These are the important steps you need to take to be successful in the rescue business. When you start a sanctuary, you must be prepared to do what it takes to be a good steward and provide everything these animals need.

When we adopted huge sulcatas, we had to move from our small backyard to a place with an acre and a half. See where this is going? In 1996, we applied for nonprofit status because the bills will killing us. If you are not willing to wade through mountains of government paperwork to get yours, stay small.

Fortunately being a nurse, the veterinarians instructed me about injections and medical care for turtles and tortoises, and it was easy to care for them. And I got the medications at a discount. You may not be so lucky. Every vet visit averages between $100 and $500, so if you are in the rescue business, you might as well figure that one out of every five animals will need medical care for a dog bite, metabolic bone disease, respiratory illnesses (very common in tortoise rescue situations), run over by cars, kidney stones and failure to thrive.

So before you start telling vets, animal shelters and others that you are open for the rescue business, think about what is in your bank account. You may only be able to give homes to just a few, and believe me that is better than none, so go for it. 

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About Us

American Tortoise Rescue is a nonprofit founded in 1990 for the protection of all species of turtles and tortoises. We have rescued more than 3,000 since our inception. Foundlings that cannot be adopted because of ill health remain in the care of ATR for the remainder of their lives. ATR acts as a clearinghouse for information about turtle care. We work to abolish “live market” slaughter of turtles in the US, the cruel importation and exploitation of a variety of species and protecting the desert tortoise.

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Quick facts

You need a lot of money to start an animal rescue.
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Ponds are expensive.
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Every exotic vet visit averages between $100 and $500.
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