Who Let the Dogs Out?

Who let the dogs out?  Woof, woof, woof, woof-woof!  This is more than just a fun little song released in the summer of 2000 by the Baha Men.  (See, I do know a few songs that were released after the 70’s.)  This is now the battle cry at Peace River Wildlife Center.  We implore all families with canine companion members to be more responsible with their fur children.


PRWC has had a rash of gopher tortoises admitted for dog bite wounds.  Unfortunately, there is no miracle cream to cure this rash.  The gopher tortoise is a threatened species, but we’re not threatening to send the Federales out to arrest your dogs.  We just want everyone to understand the species a little better and maybe that will help us all respect these ancient beings.


Fossil evidence points to the existence of turtle-like creatures during the Jurassic Period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth (208-144 Million years ago.)  By the Tertiary Period (66-2 million years ago) there were numerous species of turtles and tortoises, many similar to those we see today.  The gopher tortoise is one of those survivors, probably because of his penchant for digging deep burrows for protection from predators and environmental dangers like fire.


The gopher tortoise’s burrow is not only his home, but a refuge for numerous other species.  For this reason, the gopher tortoise is considered a Keystone Species.  He is needed within the habitat for the health and survival of as many as 300-400 other species, from mice to snakes to insects to frogs, which also live in the active tortoise burrow.  Many other species take advantage of the burrow by stationing themselves at or near the opening to eat the resident prey as they travel to and fro.  Some birds have been known to take shelter from the cold or heat by checking into a burrow for a brief period of time.


Active burrows can be 3-52 feet long and go to a depth of 6-22 feet, depending on the water table.  Abandoned gopher tortoise burrows can be taken over by foxes, skunks, armadillos, and even burrowing owls.  The best way to distinguish a tortoise’s burrow from one that houses only another species is by the shape of the opening.  The hole to a tortoise’s burrow is flat on the bottom and arched at the top—a half moon shape.  There will also be an “apron” of loose sand in front of the hole.  A round hole is a clue that another animal has created or taken over that den.


For this reason not only is the gopher tortoise afforded state and federal protection, but his burrow is also covered under the same laws.  It is illegal to handle, harass, or possess a gopher tortoise.  It is likewise illegal to destroy or disrupt a burrow.  If you see one attempting to cross a busy roadway, it is acceptable to assist only if you can do so safely.  Remember, your own safety comes first!  Always place the traveling tortoise well away from the side of the road in the direction he was headed.


If you see a tortoise you think has been injured, call PRWC or you nearest wildlife rehabilitation facility for advice.  Most of the time, an injured tortoise that is able to get back to his burrow will heal much faster than one admitted to a wildlife hospital.  Covering a crack in his shell can increase the risk of locking in infectious materials.  Antibiotics can kill the normal gut flora and alter his digestion.  The stress alone of being in such an alien environment can be fatal.  Hatchling tortoises are precocial, able to take care of themselves immediately after birth.  There is no such thing as an orphaned tortoise.  If, after talking to a rehabber, you have been advised to bring the gopher tortoise in, it is legal for you to do so.  Place him in a box or bin, covered loosely, and transport as quickly as possible.


Some of the dog attack victims PRWC has admitted recently have had life threatening damage done.  A few of them had legs partially or completely chewed off.  These tortoises will need to have permanent placement found for them, as they can no longer burrow effectively.  PRWC has one such gopher tortoise resident already, Legolas, for which we had to get a special permit since he is such an endangered species.


Most dogs probably don’t see gopher tortoises as prey, but rather as a toy.  They don’t mean to cause life threatening injuries to a highly endangered species.  Heck, my dogs couldn’t overthrow a subversive ant hill.  They don’t have much more in the way of higher thought processes than when dinner time is (and don’t get me started on the whole daylight savings time change business—throws them for a loop every time!)  So maybe we should step up to the plate as the slightly more evolved species (theoretically at least) and help our canine friends.  Monitor your dogs when they are outside.  You will not only be doing a service to wildlife, but you may well extend the life of your canine companion.

by-Robin Jenkins, DVM

Gopher tortoise hatchlings
Gopher tortoise hatchlings
Gopher tortoises attacked by dogs
Gopher tortoises attacked by dogs