By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But when I remind everybody that the western expansion, involving some 1,200 more tortoises, will be taking place in the next year and a half, Boarman says, “The original plan was for this to help inform that translocation. But ... the best-laid plans of mice and men.”
So, then, what is this study for?
“There is going to be so much future development in Southern California; everything is expanding. Other military bases may expand. There will be housing developments coming in. All of those have the potential of resulting in tortoise translocations, so any of those that do result in translocation can be helped by what we find out here. Also, decisions on whether or not to allow translocations. If this is a complete failure, then you would expect the translocations might not happen in the future.”
I suggest that perhaps the tortoises can’t afford for this to be a complete failure.
“It could be a real mess if it’s a complete failure,” Boarman admits.
“I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be good. As a scientist, I wouldn’t be willing to go so far as to say it would be cataclysmic for the tortoises. I just don’t know because we don’t have enough good population models to really evaluate so far.”
The signs out here in the field today aren’t promising. We inspect a man-made burrow — a soft-release attempt — in a nearby wash. The tortoise dropped there has already boogied and is nowhere to be seen.
Then, in a scene as surreal as any I’ve witnessed out here, a red helicopter appears over a patch of mountains, ferrying a payload of tortoises. It circles around and then lands in a flat area just above the wash where we are standing. Out of the helicopter emerge 14 tortoises, which had been watered down and kept in plastic crates overnight before their ride; as well as one biologist, Dr. Paula Kahn, charged with placing this crew, and a burly pilot straight out of central casting. It’s critical to get the tortoises out of their crates and under a creosote bush or into a burrow before it gets too hot.
I decide I can’t stand around and watch, and pitch in to help Dr. Kahn and the pilot release the crate-bound passengers. I swear my intentions are directed solely on the welfare of the tortoises and have nothing to do with the fact that the long-locked Dr. Kahn is a combination of brains and beauty that would be alluring even if she didn’t happen to be the only person out here on this day who doesn't look like a tortoise.
As we introduce them to their new homes, each tortoise is measured, weighed, checked for signs of upper-respiratory disease and placed — rather crudely, it seems — under a creosote bush and left to its fate.
Ever the optimist, Wagstaffe opines that the tortoises must have enjoyed their helicopter ride because they don’t appear to have shit or pissed themselves, which could dehydrate them and also attract predators.
I ask Dr. Kahn for her take on our friends’ future here.
“They are really, really bright animals, but you have to remember, some of these tortoises — we’re taking them out of a home in which they’ve lived for 40, 50, 60 years. It’s the only thing they know and we’re going to take them here and say, ‘Okay, new place, different plants, everything’s in a new location ... so it’s going to take them some time.”
We get the airlifted tortoises in place just before the sun reaches its peak. On the way back to the car, I spot old number 166.614 2554, the guy hightailing it for home that I mentioned before. Despite what’s been done to him, he’s got a strange charisma as he plods on across the wash, full of dignity and determination — or is it indignation? Up close, it’s easy to believe desert tortoises are sentient beings. The ones I’ve seen, I’d stop to listen to if they were on a soapbox in a park. I ask Dr. Kahn if she thinks they have emotions.
“I always anthropomorphize,” Dr. Kahn says. “You know, after working with them for so long, I feel on some levels they could, because they definitely have a social structure, and I know that doesn’t imply emotion, but as a tortoise hugger, I’d like to think that they do have emotion. I don’t know that they necessarily feel love, but they certainly feel stress, which is a physiological response ... but I’ve seen tortoises gravitate towards other tortoises and, you know, they definitely have some kind of bond, or some kind of relationships. But I know that scientifically, I can’t really back that up.”