Giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands
Photograph by Sean Baker
Captive Bred Wildlife Foundation (CBWF) is located in southeastern Arizona. It is a breeding compound consisting of over 170 acres of high desert, grassland and hills at an elevation of about 4,600 feet. The area is a transition zone between the Chihuahuan Desert with the Sierra Madre Mountains to the southeast, and the Sonoran Desert with the Rocky Mountains to the northwest. Summer day temperatures are in the 90's and rarely exceed 100°F. Winter low temperatures are usually in the upper 30's, rarely in the 'teens; winter day temperatures are often 70°F. CBWF is devoted to "global conservation of wildlife through captive propagation." The goal of the facility is "to establish breeding groups of species whose wild population are under pressure." To this end, CBWF is actively involved in propagating various reptiles and amphibians. Jeff Gee, founder of CBWF, graciously agreed to take time out of his busy work schedule for this interview, which was conducted by telephone in late August 1994. He had just returned to the house from checking his rain gauge. August to October is the "monsoon season" in southeastern Arizona, and one inch of rain had fallen the night before.
Mary Cohen (MC): How did you get into this unusual line of work?
Jeff Gee (JG): I started keeping reptiles as pets 25 years ago. When I was 13, I worked at a pet shop cleaning cages for free. Over the years I worked at a number of pet shops. In 1978, with my mother, Janet Gee, as my partner, I opened a large retail pet store in Michigan specializing in reptiles. It was near Detroit, and Detroit is a nice city, but I just got tired of city life. I also got tired of the weather; there was only about one month a year when I could keep my tortoises outside. By 1990 I had been breeding reptiles for about 20 years, and it was time to move on from a retail pet shop to being a full-time reptile breeder. We sold the retail business in 1990 and I moved to Arizona.
I feel good about my work. I think reptiles are just now coming around to where fish and birds were ten to fifteen years ago. At that time, fish and birds were about 90% wild-caught and 10% captive-bred. Now it's just the opposite: 90% of those sold in the pet trade are captive-bred. During the next decade I think we will see the same trend with reptiles.
MC: Given the 170-acre compound, what is the size of your staff?
JG: Kim, my wife and partner, and I are the only full-time staff. We don't have other jobs. This is definitely a full-time job, but we like doing it. We have two part-time helpers, mostly for the mice and rats. We raise them to feed all of our snakes, and we also sell frozen rodents. It takes about an hour and a half a day just to clean the rodent cages and feed them.
MC: Your operation is justifiably famous for its success with breeding the Galápagos tortoise (Geochelone nigra). How many adult tortoises do you have?
JG: We have a total of ten adult Galápagos. Of the "domed" shell types, we have two females and four males currently breeding. There is also a "domed" male who came from the Detroit Zoo who lives here in retirement. We have a trio (2 males and 1 female) of "saddle-backed" tortoises on breeding loan from friends in Florida.
MC: How are the saddle-backed tortoises doing?
JG: They seem to be doing well. We got them on loan because in Florida, which is so much more humid than here, they were laying only infertile eggs. Our arid climate is more like the Galapagos Islands, and we hope this will result in fertile eggs. So far we've seen breeding behavior and mating going on but no eggs yet.
MC: What is an average clutch size and incubation time for Galapagos tortoise eggs?
JG: I have seen clutches from only a few eggs to over 15. I'd say 10 to 12 eggs is a typical clutch size, which seems low for such a huge animal. Sometimes the females lay 2 to 3 clutches in one year. The eggs are incubated at room temperature and usually hatch in 85 to 130 days.
MC: What do you do to ensure breeding among your tortoises?
JG: We try to pair up males and females of similar shell shape. We keep the male and female tortoises separated for part of the year. By splitting them up for a time and bringing them together during the breeding season, we find that the females are more responsive. If they are penned together year-round, the males are constantly trying to mate and the females are not cooperative. I think this is why some zoos have not had much success with breeding these giant tortoises. Giant tortoises are treated as exhibit animals and are kept together continually. The males try to mate daily and the females just lower their bodies, tuck in their tails and graze. We also feed them foods similar to those in the wild and we will occasionally change their diet to spark their interest. Of course, some good luck is also involved.
MC: On the subject of food, how do you deal with feeding so many large animals?
JG: In southeastern Arizona, we are lucky to have several species of prickly-pear (Opuntia) which are thornless making the pads easier to harvest. We have established about 200 plants although we really need 500. In the wild, Galápagos tortoises feed on cactus and native grasses. Here we try to simulate that diet, feeding them the cactus pads and fruit, as well as wild grasses and "weeds". They also get straw, which has almost no protein and is fed mainly for roughage. Alfalfa, which has some protein, is also given from time to time.
Because we don't have enough prickly pear established yet, we feed some supermarket produce trimmings, but these have to be carefully examined before feeding for pieces of plastic and other foreign material.
There is a watermelon farm nearby, and the tortoises love the stuff, but it is not very nutritious and is fed only as a treat. A pumpkin farm and an apple orchard nearby are also sources of occasional treats. Cactus pads and grasses are the mainstay of their diet.
It is no service to the animal to feed the wrong foods. Growth is not normal, the shell is bumpy and deformed and even the skeleton is affected.
MC: How are the Galápagos tortoises housed?
JG: They live in outdoor pens separated with gates. Local vegetation, such as mesquite and native grasses, grows in the pens. Each pen has a cement pond with a drain at the bottom. The tortoises enjoy soaking in the ponds. When the weather is really hot, we sprinkle the ground with water to make a mud bath. They also like to wallow in the mud. The pens are typically 50' x 100' (5,000 square feet) to 75' x 300' (22,500 square feet) in size. The fencing is metal fence panels as used for cattle and hogs.