For the love of desert tortoises

By Emma Peterson/El Inde

Alan Bedrick has always loved reptiles. When he was young, he preferred snakes and turtles as pets over the average dog or cat. Throughout the years, his adoration for reptiles has gotten stronger.

“It’s sort of a hobby for me,” Bedrick says, “I have a desert tortoise outside and three water turtles inside. I’ve always had a passion for turtles and other reptiles.”

So it makes perfect sense that he became a volunteer at the Desert Museum’s Tortoise Rehabilitation and Adoption Program (TRAP) more than 12 years ago.  “There was a little article in the paper many, many years ago about them looking for volunteers. So, I called, and the rest is history,” Bedrick says. Although he he has a day job as a physician, he has also been a volunteer for the adoption program ever since.

The TRAP was founded to benefit the welfare of captive and wild tortoises. They are sanctioned by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and work together to assist in the safe transfer of unwanted or surplus captive desert tortoises. These tortoises are brought back to perfect health and rehabilitated to be fit to receive a new home where they will remain protected and happy for the rest of their days. Bedrick makes clear that the preservation of desert tortoises is held to a high standard at the Desert Museum.

Over the years, Bedrick’s job has been to inspect the potential new tortoise owners’ enclosures, making sure they are suitable for the tortoises to live in. “We used to go and do the yard checks, but now we do them virtually. And then, if their yard is okay, they’ll get a call from the Desert Museum to come down and pick out a tortoise,” he says.

He makes sure the enclosures are sizable for the tortoise, as they like to explore and get stimulated from having cactus, rocks, or other natural landscapes. Since tortoises hibernate, he also checks to make sure there is a suitable place for them to burrow in the winter and a clean, safe water source. But most of all, Bedrick makes sure the potential owners show an interest and passion towards them as much as he does.

Tortoises are solitary animals and aren’t your average fuzzy, cuddly pet, they still have a special charm about them. “They are just very unique in how they look and how they behave, and we’re doing a favor by taking them in, rather than leaving them in an environment where they may not survive,” Bedrick says. He also answers a lot of questions people may have about how to care for a tortoise and gives advice for what they can do to improve an enclosure before an inspection. 

Desert tortoises are federally protected. It is illegal to take one out of the wild, breed them with another captive tortoise, or set a captive one free in the wild. However, once a tortoise has been in those situations, they cannot be sent back to the wild for fear that they have lost touch with their instincts and may not survive.

Most of the cases when Bedrick sees when a new tortoise arrive is ultimately due to the negligence of an unknowing person or a desert tortoise owner, with the occasional case of an injured tortoise. From time to time, there are cases when the tortoise might have been attacked by another animal or has been mistreated and released back into the wild by a bad owner.

“Some people have had pairs and they breed, which is not good because then what do you do with all those little tortoises?” he says. The Desert Museum and Arizona Game and Fish Commission took on the responsibility for dealing with these situations. The Desert Museum will usually have a little less than a dozen Desert tortoises but will sometimes get up to around 18 rescued tortoises at a time. They keep them behind the scenes at the Desert Museum until they are sent to a loving home. With such a need today for a system like this, it makes Bedrick wonder what became of these abandoned or impaired tortoises before the program was initiated. 

“Before any tortoise is adopted, they are given a full, complete medical check by a doctor to ensure the long-lasting health and happiness for the tortoise in their new home,” Bedrick says. The adoption program’s veterinarian also works at Reid Park Zoo and the Desert Museum: Dr. James Jarchow, a world-renowned for his knowledge in desert tortoises. Bedrick insists that anyone with questions or concerns visit their hotline to avoid situations where the tortoise may be put in danger or taken out of its rightful habitat.

“None of us are paid, but we enjoy doing what we’re doing,” Bedrick says.