For many of us, pets are an important part of our lives. We adopt them into our families, we treat them like our children and we look to them to give us unconditional love and stable companionship. However, with the recent push to go green, more and more people are looking for a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional pets like dogs and cats. Let’s face it – they’re fluffy and cute, but some of our favorite four-footed friends leave surprisingly big carbon footprints. When you figure in the cost of hauling pet food from place to place, the effect of pet waste on the environment and other associated factors like the materials used to make collars, leashes and bedding – Frisky and Fido definitely leave their mark on Mother Earth.
If you’re looking for an eco-friendly pet, there are quite a few to choose from, though it takes some careful thinking to determine which pet is right for your family. Today, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite eco-friendly pets – the desert tortoise.
What is a Desert Tortoise?
It’s interesting to note that, while a tortoise is a kind of turtle, not all turtles are tortoises. Hard to wrap your head around? Let’s simplify this – most people (and many biologists) will refer to the division of reptiles known as the chelonians (turtles, tortoises and terrapins), as turtles. The best way to divide them up is to say that turtles live in or near water, having adapted to swimming and holding their breath while underwater. Tortoises, on the other hand, usually live in very dry, or arid, conditions. They are better adapted to drought, being able to store their own water supply, and are more at home on sandy ground than they are in the water. In fact, a tortoise can even drown if he gets caught in deep water or a swift current. For this reason, tortoises only go in the water if they need to drink or they might wade in a stream to clean themselves off.
A desert tortoise, as his name might suggest, is commonly found in desert areas. The common desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of the United States and Mexico. He can grow to be roughly 12-14 inches as a mature adult and weigh anywhere from 8-15 pounds. It’s not unheard of for a desert tortoise to live 80-100 years, given the right conditions, making them an excellent pet for the reptile enthusiast who wants a long-term pet. You don’t get much older than that!
Why the Desert Tortoise Makes a Good Eco-Friendly Pet
There are several factors that make a tortoise an environmentally friendly pet; habitat, diet and longevity are just a few ways that adopting a desert tortoise into your family may be one of the best pet-related ways that you can “go green.” Here are some examples of how the desert tortoise is more eco-friendly than traditional pets:
Habitat: You won’t need dog houses or fancy pet beds when you have a desert tortoise for a pet, nor will you need a lot of room. Provided they are taken out and allowed a supervised walkabout around the house or back yard, desert tortoises are perfectly happy in a large aquarium or, better yet, a home-made cage that’s designed to fit their personal needs. While desert tortoises do require a hotter, more arid environment, it’s very easy to simulate their natural habitat, when one sets out to do so. Unlike many reptiles, which require heat rocks and regular misting, the desert tortoise prefers his habitat to be arid and warm, requiring little more than a properly adjusted heat lamp and a specialized aquarium thermometer to regulate the temperature.
Bedding: The desert tortoise doesn’t require specialized bedding like many other reptiles, so you don’t have to worry about trees being cut down to make your pet bedding. Instead, you can use indoor-outdoor carpeting, which is easy to remove and then wash and dry before replacing in his tank, or you can opt for a more natural sandy environment and purchase a bag of specialized reptile sand.
Waste: Dog and cat waste is particularly damaging to our environment, believe it or not, hence why it’s so important to clean up after your pet (and you thought it was just so Joe Schmoe pedestrian didn’t step in it, didn’t you?). Fortunately, the desert tortoise produces very little waste and, what he does produce is easily cleaned and flushed down the toilet. This is just another way that they are an excellent eco-friendly pet.
Diet: Food is another important (and expensive) factor of the pet trade. Did you ever think how much fossil fuel is burned up, hauling bags of pet food back and forth, across the country? Fortunately, feeding the desert tortoise is another factor in what makes them such an amazing environmentally friendly pet – You can grow your own tortoise food! Strict herbivores, desert tortoises enjoy a variety of fruits, vegetables and grasses in their normal diet, all of which you can grow yourself. Even during winter months, if you talk to your local grocer, you can often get produce that they’ve taken off the shelves for either free or for a discounted rate when you tell them it’s for your pet. Most managers understand and would rather use it to feed a hungry pet as opposed to wasting it and throwing it in the dumpster.
These are but a few of the reasons that a desert tortoise makes an excellent eco-friendly pet and, if you give it some thought, you’re sure to come up with more great reasons to adopt one of these unique and fascinating pets into your life. If you’re looking to go green, the desert tortoise just might be the perfect pet for you!
Experience as a past reptile owner and pet store manager