Desert Tortoise: Big Guy

Posted at 12:51 pm April 13, 2010 by Lori Scott

Lori and Big Guy

I recently joined the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) as the hotline coordinator, and my first few weeks have been quite a whirlwind! The highlight of my new position came with the very first call I took; that’s how I met Big Guy, a very special desert tortoise.

Although I’ve taken many calls since then, I can honestly say I was a bundle of nerves when my first call came in. As I answered the phone, I could hear in her voice that the caller was a bit nervous, too. Mona had a pet desert tortoise, affectionately named Big Guy, that she could no longer care for, and she was looking for a place that could take him.

Big Guy’s story with Mona and her family actually started about 25 years ago when her parents were driving on a California highway. They saw him on the side of the road and decided to take him home as a pet (note: taking a desert tortoise is now against the law and has been since the tortoise was listed as a threatened species in 1989). Ten years later, with Big Guy in tow, the family relocated here to Las Vegas (note: it is now illegal to transport desert tortoises across state lines). But now Mona is unable to continue caring for Big Guy. Both of her parents have passed away, and she’s forced to sell their home, the only home Big Guy has known for the last 15 years!

Big Guy rests in front of his new burrow.

After hearing Big Guy’s story, I could understand how hard it is for families to give up their pet tortoises that they love so much. Throughout our phone conversation I tried to assure Mona that Big Guy would do great at the DTCC. I explained that the facility sits on 222 acres of natural desert landscape, and Big Guy would have lots of native plants to munch on! He would also have his own burrow and a dedicated staff caring for him. But it was only after finding out that the DTCC is now operated by the San Diego Zoo that Mona agreed this would be the best home for her beloved desert tortoise!

The next day, I arrived at the home ready to meet Big Guy and hear more about his journey. During my visit with Mona, I was happy to learn that while living with her family, Big Guy had continued to do what tortoises do best: eat native plants like dandelion greens and brumate (hibernate) each year in a well-constructed burrow. After asking a few more questions, I estimated that Big Guy must be at least 40 to 50 years old! Over the years, he had also picked up an interesting habit: Big Guy learned to knock at the back door with his beak when he wanted to join the family inside! I’m happy to say Big Guy is now making himself at home at the DTCC, enjoying our beautiful desert landscape and coming out of his burrow to bask in the morning sunlight!

Although Big Guy has had a wonderful life with Mona’s family, I want to take this opportunity to remind you that the desert tortoise is a threatened species, so it is unlawful to touch, take, harm, or harass a wild desert tortoise. Please: never pick one up off the road unless it’s to move it out of harm’s way—it must stay in the desert. It is also unlawful to cross state lines with a desert tortoise. Tortoises that come from different areas of the Mojave Desert are actually genetically different from each other, so it’s important to keep them in their native range where they can thrive.

In addition, it is a common misconception that you can give away your tortoise if you don’t want it any more, but in the state of Nevada, it is unlawful to give away your desert tortoise, no matter how long you have had it, and no matter how old it is, unless you are turning it over to the DTCC. If you want to have a desert tortoise as a pet, you can contact Tortoise Group ( for information on how to adopt one—there is no other legal means of obtaining one outside of Tortoise Group. But remember: if you decide to adopt a desert tortoise, the animal has very specific food and habitat requirements and can live to be 100 years old, so be completely sure you are ready for that kind of commitment! If you live in southern Nevada, and you can no longer care for your desert tortoise, please call me on the Pet Desert Tortoise Hotline at 702-488-9422, and I will schedule a time to come pick up your tortoise so it can come here to the DTCC where San Diego Zoo staff can care for it in its natural environment!

Lori Scott is a research associate and hotline coordinator for the San Diego Zoo’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read a previous DTCC post, Tortoise Staff on Stage.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Comments are currently closed. Pinging is not allowed.

10 Responses to “Desert Tortoise: Big Guy”

  1. Susan O says:

    A very informative and touching blog, Lori. Knocking on the door with his beak to join his family, indeed! Keep up the good work!

  2. Susan (UK) says:

    What a lovely tale, Lori. At least the family looked after Big Guy very well. Glad he has relocated so well. Maybe he’ll knock on your door one day!

  3. Amyko says:

    I loved how you told this story! I had no idea that tortoises lived that long! It was really an uplifting story and I enjoyed hearing about it! I only wish there had been a picture of Mona with Big Guy too. Just to get that full picture!

  4. Patti E. says:

    GREAT story! I think that one fact that has stuck with me while reading the blogs is that if you pick up a turtle and it ‘voids’ that it could actually die from dehydration if it doesn’t find more water to fill up with. (I didn’t say that correctly but hopefully you know what I meant!)

  5. Laura B says:

    Great story!!

  6. peggy says:

    I think turtles are pretty slow…..

    but CHEETAHS ARE AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Janet in SD says:

    Big Guy is so cute, and I love that he would seek out his family for company. Maybe now he can have some turtle friends.

  8. Lisa D says:

    Very interesting Lori! Thanks for sharing about Big Guy. 🙂 You wrote this on my birthday!

  9. Sharon S. says:

    Thanks for doing this important work to protect desert tortoises Lori. Years ago, Joe and I came across a desert tortoise in Red Rock Canyon State Park, CA. It was such a great experience to see it and watch – from a distance of course, and to know that it is a species protected by law, and that your organization is there to help is awesome! I look forward to more stories.

  10. Lori from the DTCC says:

    Thank you so much to everyone for your awesome comments and stay tuned for an update on Big Guy!

    Sharon, I’m always excited to hear when folks get to see these marvelous animals out in the wild! They truly are so important for the entire desert ecosystem and really cool to watch (from a distance). Thanks for sharing such a great experience!