Biologists help desert tortoise defy odds, rehab, return to desert after car collision

  • Published
  • By Gary Hatch
  • 412th Test Wing Public Affairs

On a recent warm sunny day, Kali the desert tortoise defied the odds.

She did it with the characteristic purposefulness a desert tortoise relies on to survive the unrelenting extremes of the Mojave Desert. She took in a breath, cast her eyes out over the plot of ground onto which she’d just been placed, then determinedly made her way over a newly formed apron and into a freshly dug burrow. There she settled in, protected from the sun and the heat of the day.

Things had been set right for her – she could go on living.

Just six months earlier her continued existence was in doubt. She had been struck by a car on Rosamond Boulevard in the sometimes frenetic traffic near the West Gate, and her life hung in the balance. She was bleeding and her shell had been cracked, exposing the soft tissue beneath, said base biologist Misty Hailstone.

Her injuries, left untreated, would likely have been fatal. Even with treatment she might not survive.

After retrieving the injured animal from the West Gate where commuters had found her, base biologists immediately set out to find a veterinarian who was qualified to treat her – a task made more complicated because desert tortoises are federally listed as a threatened species and a relatively small number of vets have gone through the qualification process to treat wild desert tortoises, Hailstone said.

The biologists found a qualified veterinarian in Ridgecrest, at the VCA Crestwood Animal Hospital, where Kali was taken and treated for her injuries. She was given antibiotics to prevent infection, which was a major source of concern. Tortoises’ immune systems are not as robust as a human’s at combating contagions and infection can cause an animal to succumb to injuries like those Kali had. The vet also put a plaster seal over the crack in her shell, which would protect the wound and also help combat infection while waiting for her shell to repair with new growth, Hailstone said. She ended up staying at the clinic for a few weeks.

Still, X-rays revealed the animal’s internal organs were not significantly damaged. That led both the vet and the base biologists to believe that Kali could ultimately survive, but full recovery would still be a long journey, one with substantial obstacles yet to overcome.

The key to progress in her recovery was to go – naturally for a tortoise – slow and steady.

Fooling Mother Nature

One significant and immediate complication was brumation – a dormancy period that tortoises and other reptiles exhibit in winter. It is similar to the hibernation of bears, but allows tortoises to wake up periodically, venture outside the protection of their burrows and drink from the puddles formed by the winter rains before returning to their burrows to resume their long winter’s nap.

Kali was injured in Mid-November and it was nearly Christmas when she returned from the veterinarian clinic. Back at Edwards, the biologists had to take the steps necessary to prevent her from brumating, which would slow her body’s systems considerably, stop her body from healing and prevent her recovery.

From this point on, Kali’s continued progress was dependent on the ability of her caregivers to fool Mother Nature.

They did this with light and temperature. The tortoise would require about 12 hours of light each day with temperatures at 90-plus degrees, which would ensure she had a high enough metabolism to continue healing.

They set up a new home for Kali in a large terrarium in the environmental management offices.

Her reaction was both good and bad.

She responded well to the light and heat and showed good activity levels, which would help her heal.

The problem was most of that heightened activity was aimed at escaping the confines of her cage.

Goddess of destruction

Kali was restless.

Maybe she was more than restless – destructively so, Hailstone said.

“We could tell within a week that she was not happy there,” Hailstone said. “We tried to make the environment as natural as possible for her, but she would tear it up trying to climb the walls to get out,” she said.

“It just wasn’t big enough. She felt like she needed to roam and the confinement caused enough stress that she would just destroy whatever we put in the terrarium trying to get out,” she said.

“That’s how she earned her name. She was named for Kali, the goddess of destruction,” Hailstone said.

It was clear to Hailstone and her fellow biologists that something needed to be done, so they went to work trying to locate a facility with the room and the ability to offer the continued care Kali would need.

After contacting a number of places, Hailstone and the team made arrangements for Kali to be taken to The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert. They had top zoological and veterinary staff who could ensure her needs were met. They also had larger facilities, both inside and out, as weather and daylight permitted, where she could feel more at home and continue to convalesce in a monitored environment until she was ready to return to the wild.

Innovation and resiliency

For Herb Roraback, chief of Environmental Management, he said watching this 6-month process play out showed the resourcefulness of his team who were responsible for Kali’s care.

“With this set of circumstances – these injuries and this animal – our team did an outstanding job managing this situation and finding the resources the tortoise needed from start to finish,” he said.

“They showed innovation in the way they overcame obstacles, and they showed resiliency in staying the course and finding whatever additional help they needed throughout this long process to ensure the tortoise could fully recover and return to the wild,” Roraback said.

It so often turns out so much worse when an automobile collides with a tortoise.

Hailstone and her fellow biologists are enjoying this success. Kali, named for the goddess of destruction, has been returned to her home range with a clean bill of health, where she can continue to help build on the survivorship of her species – from destroyer to builder.

Most importantly, a survivor.