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How Sulcata Tortoises Became America’s Most Adorable Mistake

Tank the tortoise was on a mission to destroy.

Within minutes of meeting me, the beer keg–sized animal tried to tear down a banner for American Tortoise Rescue, the ranch in Malibu, California where he lives, and shoved a giant garbage can 6 feet across his pen. Then he headed back to his pile of carrots for a restorative snack.

With their animatronic, pigeon-toed walks and dinosaur snouts, sulcata tortoises — also known as African spurred tortoises — have a dedicated fanbase and are surprisingly popular pets. Leonardo DiCaprio has one; so does 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

To understand why, you just have to look at a baby sulcata. It’s tough to overstate how cute they are. They fit right in the palm of your hand, their pinkie nail–sized heads swiveling around on a constant search for food. When you approach a tank full of babies, they bumble over on toothpick claws to crowd around your hand, eager for a bite of lettuce or a fruit treat.

Baby sulcata tortoises for sale at the East Bay Vivarium.

Rob Williamson for BuzzFeed News

Wherever you live in the United States, and whatever the climate, you can buy your very own sulcata in a pet store for between $50 and $200. Stick it in a fish tank with a UV light and some lettuce, and you’re good to go. According to the 9,250-person-strong Facebook group Sulcata Tortoises, the animals are “no trouble at all.”

But they don’t stay small for long. Properly cared for, males can grow to over 200 pounds, females around half that. Like “teacup” pig buyers, prospective sulcata owners are often burdened with significant misinformation. Pet stores sometimes tell customers that the animals stay small if kept in a small tank (they don’t), that they can eat anything vegetarian (they can’t), and that if they get too big, a zoo will take them (a myth that zookeepers are sick of debunking). Even kept with the best intentions, sulcatas might develop deformed shells, or tear up drywall and backyards.

“They’re just pretty destructive. Any place you see a wall, there’s some reason with a sulcata,” Susan Tellem, American Tortoise Rescue’s co-founder, explained as she showed me a deep hole Tank had dug recently. Even sliding doors can be a problem: Tellem had to put up a wall between Tank and the house when he figured out how to slide the glass and screen doors open with his legs to get inside.

Which is not to say that the sweet and friendly animals never make good pets. Tellem calls them “hard dogs,” and Tank comes when he’s called. “They’re personable, they’re entertaining, they know their names,” Tellem said. “People don’t realize how smart they are.”

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But you’re bound to run into problems when you combine breeders who produce thousands of cartoonishly cute hatchlings a year; buyers who get the third-largest tortoise species on a whim without educating themselves; pet stores that sell the animals without warning buyers how big they’ll get or how to care for them; and wonderful, knowledgeable owners who nevertheless age out of being able to care for a heavy and long-lived pet. Sulcatas are nearly guaranteed to outlive their owners. Experts aren’t sure exactly how long they live in captivity, since the pet trade started only around half their lifespans ago, but educated guesses peg it at over 100 years.

All told, this adds up to hundreds or even thousands of tortoises across the country who need new homes — mostly males, who fight one another when kept together and aren’t particularly useful to breeders. And because adult sulcatas need so much space and can be difficult to adopt out, many reptile rescues can’t take them in anymore.

While some conservationists have been able to give unwanted pet sulcatas jobs — such as a project that uses them for natural weed control in a Hawaiian nature preserve — most abandoned tortoises are just looking for a place to call home. Do you have a walled yard, a strong back, and a desire to put a possibly centenarian tortoise in your last will and testament?

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A tortoise at American Tortoise Rescue in Malibu.

Bryan Dale for BuzzFeed News

Paul Bulley has been breeding sulcatas for 15 years at his two Orange County homes, which together he calls “Tortuga Villa.” He met me in front of one of them in April, wearing gray camo shorts and a hat with a picture of a machine gun that read “Come and take it.” (The first time we chatted on the phone, he asked me if I was law enforcement.)

All kinds of tortoises live at Tortuga Villa — radiated tortoises, Indian star tortoises, and even Aldabras, a rare species that, in extreme cases, can tip the scales at 800 pounds and live over 200 years. But I was there to see the sulcatas; Bulley has around 20 of the typical brownish-gray ones grazing in a field and a couple of albinos in a smaller pen with burlap covering it for shade.

Bulley says he sells mostly baby sulcatas — up to a thousand in a good year, for $50 to $75 each — to pet stores, wholesalers, and private parties as a way to support his hobby. Between electricity and food, he spends about $2,500 a month keeping his 10 species of tortoises healthy and happy. Since sulcatas don’t hibernate like other tortoises, they also need access to a warm hidey-hole year-round. All that heat uses so much power that Bulley once got a visit from the police, who thought he was growing weed. “They came and visited me and were like, ‘Can we look at your tortoises?’”

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Paul Bulley at his sanctuary for tortoises in Orange County.

Bryan Dale for BuzzFeed News

Bulley, like any tortoise enthusiast, doesn’t need a license to breed sulcatas, though permit regulations for ownership and sales vary from state to state. That makes pinning down how many live in the US next to impossible.

“Unfortunately I cannot begin to answer that accurately,” Abigail DeSesa, executive board chair of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club — a society for aficionados and rescuers — told me by email when I asked if she could estimate the sulcata population in the United States. “What I can clearly state without a single doubt is there are too many. There is a serious breeding problem in the United States.”

Sulcatas are believed to have first arrived in the US in the 1960s, when a few were imported from the southern edge of the Sahara by wealthy obsessives, including big-game hunter Paquita Machris, whose kills live on in dioramas at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. The first US babies were born in the 1970s, but they stayed a rarity until breeders figured out the best incubation strategies. By the early 2000s, an “exponential cascade” of the animals had flooded the US pet trade.

Sulcatas are prodigious egg layers — several times a year, between 15 and 50 in a clutch — so breeders can produce thousands of babies with relatively little effort. Over the years, overbreeding has pushed the prices of the tiny tortoises down to a fraction of their cost when breeding first took off. A $70 tortoise is a much more palatable impulse buy than one with a steeper up-front cost — but impulse buys that become inconvenient are easily discarded.

Many sulcatas get dumped in garages or basements, far from the sunlight they need to synthesize vitamin D and keep their shells and bones healthy. Without it — or with too much or too little protein, or too little humidity, or too little calcium — sulcatas will develop metabolic bone disease, a catchall term for skeletal disorders resulting from malnutrition. A healthy sulcata’s shell is smooth and round, but many of those raised in captivity suffer from some degree of “pyramiding,” a bone disease where they develop characteristic spikes on their carapace, the top half of the shell.

Bulley said he thoroughly vets prospective owners he doesn’t know — asking them where they will keep the babies, how they will care for the resulting adults, what kind of diet and setup they’ll provide. To keep the tortoises comfortable and prevent them from digging under house foundations, most experts, including Bulley, recommend that owners build sheds or doghouses in the yard, heated to at least 80 degrees year-round. Bulley said he’s taken at least 100 male sulcatas off owners who were in over their heads, both from his own customers and from people who find him online. “A lot of my tortoises are rescues or adopted,” he told me. “People give me tortoises all the time.”

The real blame, Bulley insisted, lies with pet stores, which he said often mislead buyers. “They’re kinda in it for the money,” he said, though pet stores are among his biggest clients. “I don’t think they give people the right information.” When asked how he vets stores and wholesalers, Bulley said, “I only deal with people I know real well, and pet stores that have a good setup.”

Bulley acknowledged that many other tortoise rescuers would argue that he is also acting irresponsibly by breeding sulcatas in the first place. “They probably don’t like me,” he said. “But I don’t worry about what people think of me, ’cause I do a lot of good, too.” He created Tortuga Villa’s website not to sell babies — he sells plenty as it is — but to provide information for those looking to be better owners. Bulley doesn’t believe in shipping tortoises, so the site doesn’t list any prices or ordering information.

“Some people get irritated with me. They go, 'Do you want to sell one or not?'” he said. “And I go, 'Well, I would…but maybe I don’t feel good about you owning one.”

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Tortoises at Bulley's sanctuary, Tortuga Villa.

Bryan Dale for BuzzFeed News

In spring and summer of this year, I went to four pet stores in Los Angeles County and the Bay Area that sell sulcatas. All were openly selling babies (except for one store that had just sold out), with the caveat that the little ones were for educational or research purposes only. There is a federal law stating that tortoises and turtles under 4 inches can’t be sold as pets, since tortoises, like all reptiles, can carry salmonella — and a tiny tortoise is just the right size for a toddler to pop into their mouth. I asked the salespeople a series of questions — what kind of food sulcatas eat, how big they get, how long they live — and heard nearly every myth Bulley and others I’d spoken to complained about, though not as often as I was expecting.

At one of the stores, the salesperson told me sulcatas will stay little if you keep them in a small tank their whole lives (a myth that haunts many tank-dwelling pets). While it is true that the tortoises should be kept in tanks as babies, within two years they’ll be less susceptible to harm and need room to roam. He also referred to the species as “the easiest tortoise” to care for, saying they will eat anything vegetarian. He neglected to mention that a diet of anything besides 85% grasses, weeds, and low-protein hay is likely to result in bone disease.

At the other stores, the salespeople were honest about how large sulcatas grow, though one of them also said the Oakland Zoo would take them when they got too big. “There’s just no way I can take in every animal people want to give up,” said Margaret Rousser, a zoological manager at the Oakland Zoo. “I have to make sure I have the resources for the animals that are already here on grounds.”

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Owen Maercks at the East Bay Vivarium.

Rob Williamson for BuzzFeed News

Owen Maercks, cult-famous musician and co-owner of the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, clearly cares deeply that his animals go to good homes. The store, which gets 20 to 30 baby sulcatas every two to three months, can sell them within a few months. But for every hundred people who come in and say “Look at the cute tortoises!” only one or so will actually take one home. That’s because when passersby stop to ogle the babies near the front of the store, Maercks and his employees direct them around the corner to Carl, an 8-year-old, 50-pound sulcata. “The first thing I say is, ‘This’” — Maercks pointed to the babies — "'plus eight years equals that'" — he pointed to Carl. "And that's still half-grown."

Maercks is one of several sulcata distributors I spoke to who insists that would-be owners take a hard look at their own mortality: When parents bring their children to look at sulcatas, he asks the kids whether they plan on having grandchildren who can take care of them.

Carl, who was sulking in the corner of his UV tank until a shop worker presented him with a bus bin full of food, is Maercks’s current “show tortoise,” a two- to three-year position for medium-sized sulcatas. The gig involves heading out with Maercks’s traveling reptile show, while spending downtime dissuading casual baby buyers.

“He’s half-grown,” Maercks told a little girl in a princess dress who was watching Carl stomp through his tray of veggies, which the Vivarium gets for free after their sell-by date from a local grocery. (Maercks recommends every owner of a large sulcata befriend a grocery store manager and indulge in “the time-honored tradition of dumpster diving.”) Carl dragged his dinner into the shavings and then started to eat with voracious lunges of his dinosaur beak. The little girl borrowed her dad’s cell phone to take pictures.

“Our store sells them conscientiously,” Maercks told me. “You’re not going to buy it and take it home and then two years later wonder why it hasn’t stopped growing. I can’t speak to other stores that don’t do their job well.”

Once the show tortoises get too big for Maercks to lift easily (he often sticks Carl on a scale to show kids), he finds them a home with someone looking for a larger pet and cycles in a new tortoise that got too big for its owners. Some go back to his partner in Southern California, to keep the babies coming.

Kids, grown-ups, and dogs wandered freely through the store, which essentially functions as a free zoo where you can take the animals home if you’re so moved. It’s packed with a dense maze of stacked glass displays filled with spiders, snakes, turtles, and tortoises. Along the back wall is a huge tank housing Elmo the Eviscerator, a 6-foot-long black-throated monitor lizard who looks like he’d eat a kid for a snack. (“I take him to preschools and birthday parties,” Maercks reassured me. “The kids love him.”)

But for all the density of animals, the only sound came from the humans. “That’s the animal I can’t stand,” Maercks said as a baby’s wail pierced the hot, pine-fragrant air.

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The East Bay Vivarium.

Rob Williamson for BuzzFeed News

At Susan Tellem’s American Tortoise Rescue, Tank and another sulcata, Popcorn, ignored sweeping views of the Malibu hills as they chowed down on carrots and hay. Popcorn, or Poppy, is named after the popcorn and rice cakes he lived on before coming to the rescue, which also houses chickens, goats, and sheep. The boys have been kept separated by cinderblocks and chicken wire ever since a fight between the two landed Popcorn a bloody eye and Tellem and her husband had to cart the enormous animal off to the vet.

Tellem works hard to actively discourage breeding. She sends press releases to journalists who cover animal issues, encourages people who contact her for information to adopt instead of buying babies, and tells off others who email her looking for a female to breed. I asked her if she thinks there’s a place for ethical breeding — selling babies with the assurance that they go to good owners who are aware of the difficulties of sulcata ownership. “No, I don’t,” she responded. “With sulcatas, there’s just so many needing homes.”

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Susan Tellem and her husband at their sanctuary.

Bryan Dale for BuzzFeed News

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