Telling the difference between a wild and pet tortoise can be difficult because they act similarly by wandering, burrowing, foraging, and sunbathing.
Finding an exotic tortoise that isn’t native to your state or region may indicate that it’s a pet.
The tortoise may have escaped from a home, local zoo, or animal charity or was released into the wild by an owner who no longer wanted to keep it.
A pet tortoise may show an unnatural interest in humans, recognizing them as carers.
If you enter the tortoise’s line of sight without bothering it, yet it still walks toward or follows you, it’s likely someone’s pet. This isn’t guaranteed because some wild tortoises know humans feed them.
What To Do If You Find A Wild Tortoise In Your Garden?
Depending on your state, interfering with or relocating a wild tortoise may be illegal unless in immediate and life-threatening danger. For example, Arizona and Florida have strict restrictions on how the public can interact with any wild tortoises they encounter.
If you find a tortoise in the middle of a busy road, you can help it reach the other side safely. Avoid putting it in your car and moving it to a new location.
If you find a hurt tortoise stranded on your porch on a hot day, you can provide it with water or usher it to shade. However, don’t lift or move it unless instructed by a vet.
Given the highly individualized nature of policies regarding tortoises, your first step is always to check the local laws regarding human interaction with the species.
It may be illegal for you to do anything but call the local authorities or a wildlife sanctuary. If the tortoise is endangered, exceptions may be permitted to save its life.
What Should You Do If You Find A Pet Tortoise?
If you find a tortoise you believe to be a pet in your backyard, you should take the same precautions.
You may be incorrect and accidentally break laws by handling a wild tortoise. Likewise, you could be liable for any injury the tortoise sustains because you handled it.
If you’re unfortunate, the special permits that grant the owner rights to handle and keep the tortoise won’t apply to you, even in these unique circumstances. You may get in trouble despite your good intentions of returning the tortoise.
You should contact a local vet. Not only will a vet be able to advise you on how to treat or move the tortoise according to best practices and local laws.
The vet can also check if the tortoise is sick or has been microchipped by asking you to bring it into the clinic or come to your home. The vet can facilitate the pet tortoise’s return if a microchip is present.
In states with looser laws regarding tortoises, you may be able to place an otherwise healthy tortoise into a box with some water to drink. After this, take pictures and check with local animal shelters, sanctuaries, and news bulletins to see if anyone has lost a domestic tortoise.
If you can care for a tortoise at home, you should do so until an owner claims it. If not, find a shelter or sanctuary willing to hold the tortoise until its owner can be located and contacted.
What Not To Do When You Find A Tortoise
If you find a tortoise, never claim it as your own without calling anyone, even if it’s uninjured. If it’s a wild tortoise, this might be illegal in your state.
Moreover, a wild tortoise could be stressed by this ordeal and never adjust to a domestic lifestyle, especially if kept indoors. This could lead to declining health and a shortened lifespan.
If the tortoise belongs to someone, it’s likely to adjust to your home smoothly. However, it might be considered theft if you’re found out and considered immoral, even if you aren’t.
It’s better to seek out the owner. Only keep the tortoise if you can’t locate the owner, if it’s legal in your state, and if no vet or sanctuary can help you find a better option for the tortoise.
Why You Should Never Relocate A Tortoise
Perhaps you don’t have the time, skill, or interest to take responsibility for the found tortoise.
You may be tempted to move it from your backyard and continue your day. However, relocating tortoises is a dangerous event, wild or domesticated. It may seem like an easy solution, but you could cause harm to the animal.
According to SFGate, well-meaning passers-by are often the most dangerous threat to box turtles in San Francisco because they move the animals to ‘better’ areas, far away from their burrows, food sources, water, and territories.
This example applies to all wild tortoises. Unless the tortoise displays signs of illness, distress, or injury, it’ll likely go to a feeding area or den.
If you move a tortoise to another area, it’ll keep going in its original direction. When moved far away, it’ll trek endlessly, exhausting the tortoise or exposing it to the elements when night falls.
Worse yet, you may leave the tortoise without an accessible food or water source, exposed to predators, and confused. This adds further issues that could negatively impact the tortoise.
Can A Tortoise Find Its Way Home?
An escaped pet tortoise or a tortoise from a sanctuary is unlikely to find its way home alone.
It won’t know the local terrain. Even if it’s still within its original neighborhood, it’ll have never explored outside of its enclosure, so it’ll have little experience to rely on and backtrack with.
However, a wild tortoise can find its way home if it’s still within its territory after being moved. It’ll have spent its life mapping out foraging routes and pathways to water, and it can rely on these during the return journey.
So, don’t relocate the tortoise to stop it from being your problem. Only move a tortoise as far as is necessary to avoid immediate danger, such as from cars.
Moving a wild tortoise further is only safe if it’s injured and you have been instructed to take it to an animal hospital or vet.