News that hundreds of threatened desert tortoises face euthanasia with the pending closure of a refuge near Las Vegas has generated a storm of reaction that has government officials scrambling to find alternatives and fielding offers from people wishing to adopt the reptiles or make donations.
The Associated Press reported this week that the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, which has sheltered thousands of displaced tortoises for 23 years, is scheduled to close in 2014 as funding runs out.
As the location just south of Las Vegas begins to ramp down, it is euthanizing tortoises deemed too unhealthy to return to the wild. Healthy tortoises won't be killed.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service desert tortoise recovery coordinator Roy Averill-Murray estimated last week that about 50 percent to 60 percent of the 1,400 tortoises that live at the refuge were sick. Such tortoises cannot be released into the wild because they could infect their healthy wild brethren.
The estimate prompted a public outcry and debate among the various agencies connected to the refuge about the number of at-risk tortoises. It also forced the agency to issue a statement assuring the public that no healthy tortoises will be killed but saying that euthanasia is the only option for many of the animals because they are sick. Fish and Wildlife also assigned four people to field calls and put a message about the situation on its spokeswoman's answering machine.
Deputy Fish and Wildlife Service director Carolyn Wells said Wednesday that the 50 percent estimate of sick tortoises at the facility may be correct, but added that not all of the ailing animals will be killed. Some of them could potentially go to research facilities, she said, though she could not say how many, and she does not yet have commitments from biologists.
Fish and Wildlife operates the center in conjunction with the San Diego Zoo.
Allyson Walsh, associate director for the zoo's Institute for Conservation Research, said just 30 percent of the residents are receiving medical treatment, though some others have been quarantined and need new evaluations.
"The ones that don't get better and that are sick and suffering will probably be euthanized because that's the sensible thing to do," she said.
She disputed the notion that budget cuts are forcing the reptiles to be put down. Although the center has housed sickly tortoises for years, Walsh said they eventually would have been euthanized anyway.
Walsh said sick tortoises cannot be adopted out and she has not been contacted by any researchers interested in taking in the sick animals.
"That's a possibility but we wouldn't transfer an animal to anyone who was doing destructive research," she said.
The right thing to do for a sick animal is euthanize it, she said.
Seth Webster disagrees.
Webster, a 36 year old programmer from New York, created a Change.org petition that together with a similar one on the site has drawn more than 3,000 signatures. He said he is working with a Florida tortoise refuge that recently bought land in Nevada to see if Fish and Wildlife will transfer the tortoises, or at least let an outside evaluator decide which animals are so sick they should be killed.
"Animals have a very strong will to survive," he said. "These tortoises live to 100 years. If we euthanize him, are we robbing him of 30 years? It doesn't seem fair to euthanize them just because the tortoises are sick and someone ran out of money."
Desert tortoises have made their rocky homes in Utah, California, Arizona and Nevada for 200 million years. But the prehistoric animal has some unfortunate evolutionary quirks, including a susceptibility to flu-like respiratory infections and difficulties settling in to new homes. They are also sensitive to change as the tortoises sometimes dehydrate themselves by voiding a year's worth of stored water when handled.
These weaknesses have combined with widespread habitat destruction in the quickly developing Southwest to dramatically reduce the tortoises' numbers.
The Bureau of Land Management has partially funded the conservation center through fees imposed on developers who disturb tortoise habitat, but when the housing bubble burst several years ago, that funding dropped far below what was needed to run the center.
"Here's an upside to this. It's gone international," U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jeannie Stafford said. "We have gotten hundreds of people saying they would like to adopt. Thousands of people signing petitions. It's been people wanting to help us with the situation."
But most of the would-be tortoise Good Samaritans cannot actually adopt the animals. Federal laws intended to protect the reptiles ban their transportation across state lines.
People who live in Nevada can adopt the slowpokes through the Desert Tortoise Group. But they should know that owners who kill or release their long-lived pets could face prison time.
The U.S. Humane Society is setting up a fund this week for out-of-staters who want to help but cannot take a tortoise home.
Despite the overwhelming response, the Bureau of Land Management is not reconsidering its plan to pull funding that goes toward the center's $1 million annual budget.
"Although it's wonderful that people want to give money, it won't change the outcome for the Desert Conservation Center," BLM spokeswoman Erica Haspiel-Szlosek said. "There just isn't money to keep it going, nor is it really the best use of conservation funds."
The agency plans to redirect the $810 fee that developers pay for each acre of tortoise habitat they disturb to environmental preservation efforts.
The center has historically taken in about 1,000 tortoises a year, but will stop accepting new residents in coming months.